Senate approves mine program
Legislation now awaits Bush's
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
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
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
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
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
means it would not be controlled through the annual appropriations
That's a boon for the coal-producing states, which
complained that the money is not being used for its intended purpose.