Federal authority to collect reclamation fees on abandoned mine land expired Thursday, leaving the program in a precarious state even as its funding pool remains available.
The Abandoned Mine Land program that addresses dangerous conditions and pollution caused by past coal mining has not been reauthorized.
The U.S. House of Representatives had not approved a bill advanced by the Senate last month that would reauthorize and extend the fee levied on coal companies that funds the reclamation program for mine land abandoned before 1977, as of press time Thursday.
That’s the next step needed to send the measure before President Joe Biden for his approval.
The U.S. Department of the Interior announced $18.9 million for West Virginia to reclaim abandoned mine lands in March. More than $8 billion has been distributed to states for reclamation projects since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act established the program in 1977.
The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement will distribute Abandoned Mine Land grants to states and tribes for fiscal year 2022 based on fiscal year 2021 fee collection as provided by the 1977 law, office spokesman Francis Piccoli said Thursday.
If the fee remains unauthorized, the office would keep making grant distributions under the program to states like West Virginia that have not certified completion of known reclamation needs in fiscal year 2023 and thereafter until the Abandoned Mine Land fund is depleted, according to Piccoli.
The fund contained $11.674 billion, including interest, as of Sept. 30, 2020. The amount in the fund will not be updated until the office completes end-of-year closeout activities, Piccoli said.
Of that $11.674 billion, $2.213 billion remained unappropriated. That amount was allowed for earned investment activities transferred to health care plans administered by the United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds, a group of multi-employer plans that provides health and pension benefits to retired coal miners and their eligible dependents.
But Chelsea Barnes, legislative director of the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, warned that the delay in reauthorization means agencies and communities can’t plan for new reclamation projects or respond to new emergencies.
They simply don’t know how much money to expect and when, she says.
“Congress needs to prioritize this issue and reauthorize the AML program as soon as possible in order to provide necessary and deserved long-term certainty for coal-impacted communities and state and tribal governments,” Barnes said in an email Thursday.
The infrastructure bill the Senate passed in a 69-30 vote last month would reauthorize the program for 13 years at 80% of its current levels — 28 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 12 cents per ton for coal mined underground.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had not moved forward, as of press time, with a vote on the Senate-approved infrastructure bill. House progressives had threatened to vote against the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to apply leverage they hope will force moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to support a $3.5 trillion budget package that would expand the nation’s social safety net through expanded Medicare, enhanced child care and housing support, as well as enact clean energy incentives and other climate priorities.
A centrist who holds a crucial vote in the evenly divided Senate, Manchin said Thursday his spending limit for the budget package is $1.5 trillion — well below what progressives have been willing to accept.