There has been a deafening silence on environmental matters as the administration has rolled out its priorities in 2004. No mention in the State of the Union. Quiet cuts to environmental programs that lowered funding by nearly 6 percent in the proposed budget. One of the exceptions to the rule is the fanfare that has surrounded the administration’s support for cleaning up abandoned coal mines. While there is no question that cleaning up abandoned mine land is an important public goal, the administration’s boasts about $53 million in new spending belie that the fact that the issue is being driven by politics, not by policy. The stated “new funding” is slated to go to states whose abandoned mines pose no public health risk and whose programs who are already fully funded. Instead of playing politics with scarce environmental clean up money, congress should reauthorize and fund the Abandoned Mine Land program allowing the money to flow to the hazardous sites that pose the greatest health and safety dangers.

The administration’s current budget proposal boasts of $53 million in new funds for abandoned mine clean up but the funding is coupled with proposals that direct where the money is spent. Over $530 million in funds is paid out to Montana, Texas and Wyoming; states that may play important political roles in passing legislation, but whose abandoned mine cleanup efforts are already fully funded and where the abandoned coal mines are already certified as hazard free. These states are free to use the funds any way they want. They aren’t required to use the funds for mine reclamation. States with the biggest problems — Pennsylvania and West Virginia — would remain under-funded. In an additional act of political patronage, coal companies are rewarded with reductions in the fees they pay to finance clean up of coal mines.

More than 150 years of coal mining have left thousands of abandoned coalmines in 26 states across the United States. An estimated 3.5 million Americans live within one mile of an abandoned mine. And mines are far more than eyesores. As Jeffrey Jarrett, director of the Office of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement recently testified, “These are not merely ‘ugly landscapes’ that need to be made more attractive. These are serious, life threatening, high-priority hazards that have been around for more than 26 years and haven’t yet been cleaned up.” These dangerous sites have caused deaths from landslides, sinkholes, blow-outs, and floods. They destroy homes and land. Acid drainage and heavy metals pollute surface and ground water.

In 1977, the federal government created a program to clean up these abandoned coalmines—the Abandoned Mine Lands Program (AML). The federal government annually collects roughly $330 million in tonnage fees from mine operators that is distributed across federal, state, and tribal programs for old mine cleanup. Yet the clean up is far from done. Over $6 billion is needed to make these old sites safe. Despite the backlog, over $1.5 billion collected and earmarked for this work has accumulated unspent in the U.S. Treasury. Worse, the authority to collect fees from operational coal mines expires in September. Without Congressional action, this vital program will fall by the wayside.

Even if the program weren’t expiring, AML cleanup was in need of fixing anyway. Because allocations for cleanups are based on current production, states with historically large mining operations (and correspondingly large AML problems) are shortchanged. As Jarrett explains, “over the past 25 years, fee income has shifted away from the areas with high historic production and into the areas where there are fewer or no remaining AML problems.” Any reform of the AML program needs to change the funding formula so that money goes where it can do the most good.

There are several competing proposals on how best to fix the AML program. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has thrown its support behind Senator Specter’s (R-PA) bill that phases in a fee cut from the current 35 cents per ton to 26.25 cents per ton over the next 14 years. The cut in fees will cost the AML fund between $700 and 800 million in badly needed revenue. Further, Specter’s bill reauthorizes AML for only 14 years rather than the needed 25 years, uses AML funds for reclamation performance bonds that mining companies should finance, and distributes over $530 million over next 10 years to states certified free of AML problems but with key Congressional committee assignments. Wyoming alone would collect $407 million. That’s $530 million that will not be spent on cleaning up hazardous, abandoned mines in states with huge backlogs of AML sites. For example, the estimate for cleaning up the AML backlog in Pennsylvania alone is $1 billion but it only gets $35.6 million this year under the current proposal. While this is an increase, more should be done to direct the funds to states in greatest need.

Because the number of AML sites is so large, so expensive to clean up, and impacts the lives of millions of coalfield residents the tonnage fees collected from operating mines should remain at current rates. Financed at current fee rates and annual levels of fund distributions, the national backlog of AML sites will take at least 25 years to clean up. Therefore, reauthorization of the program, OSM’s collection of tonnage fees at the current rates, and AML program funding should all be continued for the full 25 years. Congress should also ensure that small states can clean up their mines by increasing minimum program funding.

The administration’s proposal is not totally without merit. By changing the formula for distributing money to states with active sites it increases the funding for states with serious problems. Under the current funding formula, OSM deposits all tonnage fees into one of several accounts established within the AML fund. Fifty percent of the fees generated from current coal production in any one state or tribe is allocated to an account established for that state or tribe. Consequently, the geographic distribution of funds for cleaning up AML sites largely depends on the contemporary geography of coal production rather than the geographic distribution of production prior to 1977. By this formula, only 29 percent of the funding available nationally goes to states and tribes based on their historic production of coal, the jurisdictions with the most AML problem sites. The administration is right to try to fix this historic inequity. By raising the federal share of AML funds distributed to historic production states and tribes from 40 to 60 percent, Congress can ensure that the backlog of AML historic production sites is cleaned up. But squandering $530 million of accumulated AML fees is an excessive price tag to keep a few states from holding hostage a responsible AML reauthorization bill.

Abandoned coalmines are a national problem, and cleaning them up is the right thing to do. The proposal offered by President Bush provides too little funding and too little time to finish the national task of cleaning up hazardous abandoned mines. Time is running out. Unless Congress reauthorizes the AML fees and clean up program, both will expire on September 30, 2004. Congress and the administration should keep their promise to protect the communities that provided the coal that fueled the nation for so many years.

Richard Stout teaches economics at Knox College and is a board member of the Citizens Coal Council.

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