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Senate Approves Mine Program

December 10, 2006

Legislation Now Awaits Bush's Signature

By Kimberly Hefling
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- About $1 billion in relief could be headed to rural Pennsylvania communities to clean up hazardous and polluting abandoned coal mines under legislation that passed the Senate early Saturday.

The measure, part of a larger bill, would reauthorize the national coal mine reclamation program for 15 years at a cost of $5 billion. The House had approved the legislation on Friday; it now awaits the president's signature.

Passage of the legislation ends a yearslong fight that has pitted coal-producing states against each other.

Nationwide, it is estimated that more than 3.6 million people live less than a mile from an abandoned coal mine. The price tag to clean up the worst sites is $8.5 billion.

Particularly in eastern U.S. coalfields, the unstable former mine land has been blamed for fatal accidents by hikers and ATV riders -- 24 deaths in Pennsylvania were reported last year on abandoned mine land. In addition, toxins from the abandoned mines have left about 4,000 miles of streams and rivers biologically dead in the state. There are also fires inside several former underground mines that have burned for years.

Pennsylvania, which once was king of the coal industry, has an estimated 184,000 acres of land scarred by old coal mines. It is estimated it could take $5 billion to completely clean them up.

The program was created in 1977 as part of sweeping reforms in surface mining. It was based on a per-ton fee that coal companies paid into a fund established for use to clean up the abandoned mine sites. But much of the money over the years was used to pad the federal budget. About $2 billion collected for the fund has not been appropriated for clean-up projects.

In the past decade, Pennsylvania has received about $250 million to clean up its abandoned mines.

Since the program's creation, much of the nation's mining has shifted from states in the East like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky to those in the West, like Wyoming.

The Western states have not struggled as much with abandoned mine restoration issues because much of the mining has been done with modern mining and reclamation techniques.

Under the current program, half the fees collected go back to the state from which the coal was mined.

The historic coal mining states have complained that Wyoming uses its abandoned mine land fund for public works. The Western states, in turn, have complained of bearing the burden of funding the program.

The bill would lower the fees paid into the program and modify the formula so that historic coal mining states with the more serious problems get a higher stake of the money, while Wyoming would still get a huge chunk. It also would continue to fund health benefits for thousands of retired union miners who worked for coal companies that no longer exist -- a key issue for West Virginia lawmakers.

It would make spending for the reclamation program mandatory, which means it would not be controlled through the annual appropriations process.

That's a boon for the coal-producing states, which have long complained that the money is not being used for its intended purpose.

© 2006 Centre Daily Times and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Appalachian's president, Josh First, was actively engaged in getting this legislation passed for two-and-a-half years.  For more than a year he served as the coordinator of the Abandoned Mine Lands Campaign, and then spent more time drumming up grass roots support for the legislation as a member of the coalition and as a contractor for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.  "I am proud to have worked closely with such a fine group from the environmental and coal field communities," said First.  "This is a win-win for both the environment and for coal operators, who will now get the support they need to aggressively re-mine abandoned mine lands and simultaneously reclaim them and beautify them."
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