Mine bill renewal called 'life-saving'
Dec 27, 2006
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
A.J. PanianTRIBUNE REVIEW
In 2003, mine land reclamation groups from 10 states met in Westmoreland County to help R. John Dawes compile what he called a "wish list."
The document asked the federal government for reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands Trust Fund, mandatory spending on reclamation projects and fair funding distribution among states with the longest histories of surface coal mining, said Dawes, chairman of the Pennsylvania Abandoned Minelands Campaign.
This month, Congress passed a bill that would meet the group's requests and provide what Dawes calls "life-saving legislation."
President Bush signed the bill into law last week.
"It's very, very exciting for those concerned about preserving the environment and safety of our communities that this bill passed," Dawes said.
The Abandoned Mine Lands Trust Fund was created in 1977 with passage of the federal Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act. As part of the act, the federal Office of Surface Mining conducted a nationwide inventory of abandoned mine sites and established a priority-ranking system for the danger level of such sites.
The law will reauthorize the funding source supporting the mine lands fund for another 15 years at a cost of $15 billion. Of that amount, $1 billion is slated for Pennsylvania communities to clear hazardous and polluting coal-mine sites.
The abandoned mine lands program had been operating under a series of short-term, one-year extensions for the past three years. The increased funding for the state will be phased in over a five-year period, said Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection in Harrisburg.
Statewide, five deaths were reported last year on about 184,000 acres of abandoned mine lands. Toxins from such sites have left about 4,000 miles of streams and rivers biologically dead, he said.
The reauthorized legislation, which extends the fund through 2021, calls for the following changes from the previously authorized Abandoned Mine Lands Trust Fund:
• The allocation of abandoned mine lands cleanup funds has been taken "off-budget," meaning the annual expenditure of the money doesn't require congressional approval.
• A far greater portion of the fund will be allocated for actual reclamation of Priority 1 and 2 sites, which are known for dangerous highwalls, unmarked shafts, unstable cliffs, water-filled pits and abandoned equipment and buildings. In the past, Congress did not appropriate the entire amount for mine cleanups.
"The primary advantages to Pennsylvania and other Eastern states are that this removes the abandoned mine program from the political arena and allows us to engage in long-term planning and budgeting," Rathbun said.
The tax on the active mining industry -- the sole source of funding for the abandoned mine program -- will be reduced by 20 percent over the next six years.
Dawes and Bruce Golden, regional coordinator for the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, said they are most encouraged by the projected increase in the "set-aside" program, which allows states to stockpile up to 10 percent of their annual federal grant for cleanup of mine drainage. That amount has been increased to 30 percent, but spending remains discretionary for each state.
"If we are not careful how this money is allocated, we could find ourselves in 15 years with significant problems still to address and no guarantee that the AML Fund will be extended again," Rathbun said.
Either way, the state must be prepared to use whatever money it receives in the most efficiently strategic way possible, said Bev Braverman, executive director of the Mountain Watershed Association.
"Part of that money needs to be spent on really looking at the inventory of problems and engineering project designs, and that needs to be done sooner than later if we're going to spend more money down the road," Braverman said. "We want this money to really beef up the reclamation program that Pennsylvania already has in place."
Gov. Ed Rendell lauded all individuals and groups involved with expressing the state's dire need for the fund's long-term reauthorization by Congress.
"It is a major victory for Pennsylvania's environment and economy, and much of the credit goes to the environmental groups, members of Congress, coal companies and mine workers who have worked so hard to win approval of this measure," Rendell said.