$1 billion proposal to restore abandoned mine lands needs to overcome skeptics

$1 billion proposal to restore abandoned mine lands needs to overcome skeptics

Centralia, an abandoned mining town in Pennsylvania in which a mine fire has been burning for 50 years. Pennsylvania has $5 billion in unfunded abandoned mine land liabilities. (Doug Kerr/Flickr)

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Business & Economics, Policy

By Hannah Levitt

WASHINGTON — A proposal to immediately unlock $1 billion set aside to restore abandoned mine lands in the future has the support of congressional leaders, but lawmakers in key states are skeptical.

The bill would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to make an additional $200 million per year available starting in 2017 for restoration projects that would pave the way to economic development projects. Without the change, the money cannot be used until 2021.

Currently, abandoned mine land funding is provided through industry fees and goes to high priority projects. Bob Scott, director of the Kentucky Abandoned Mine Lands Division, said that the proposal would allow spending on lower priority projects if they offer a promise of economic or community development at the site.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who sponsored the bill, said that it ensures the fund would be used for its intended purpose, but gets money out of the door faster to reclaim the land and repurpose it for job creation and economic development.

“These dollars in the (abandoned mine land) fund are just sitting there languishing at a time when coal communities are in desperate need,” Rogers said. “There is no logical reason for opposing the acceleration of the release of these funds.”

The bill would allow this money to be used on abandoned mine lands that pose an extreme danger to public health, safety and property; sites that threaten adverse effects to public health and safety; and sites with degradation of land or water resources due to coal mining.

The House Committee on Natural Resources unanimously passed the bill in June. The bill has 29 co-sponsors, a number that continues to grow. Rogers’ goal is to get the measure through Congress by the end of the year.

Despite bipartisan and leadership support, some of the states with abandoned mine lands are giving the proposal mixed reviews.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia, two of the biggest would-be beneficiaries of the bill with $5 billion and $1.5 billion in unfunded abandoned mine land liabilities respectively, support the bill. Kentucky, which has the fourth largest amount of unfunded liabilities at $475 million, also supports it.

“The current inventory of abandoned mine land sites in Kentucky, the cost to reclaim all those, is over $400 million,” Scott said. “Our current annual grant is around $12 million. So you see, at the amount of funding that we have, we would never completely eliminate the current known hazards.”

But Kansas, the state with the third largest amount of unfunded liabilities at $754 million, opposes the plan, according to Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, a multi-state organization to stimulate mining growth and address problems such as reclamation He said that the states that are opposed, like Kansas, or skeptical, such as Indiana and Alabama, are concerned that the money will be misused.

Officials from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Surface Mining Section said they do not comment on pending legislation.

Conrad said the main challenge of the bill lies in ensuring that the money is used for its intended purpose: high-priority abandoned mine land reclamation.

“We’ve been at this for a good three years now, trying to find the most appropriate approach to address a mechanism by which some amount of money can be released from the (abandoned mine land) trust fund to address projects that have an economic revitalization or economic development element to them,” he said. 

He also said that past uses of abandoned mine land funds to remove obstacles for economic development have been successful because they have been targeted, with an eye to the primary goal of restoring the land.

Due to the varying opinions of the states, the IMCC has not been able to take a firm position on the legislation, Conrad said. 

Unfunded abandoned mine land liabilities are currently $10 billion, according to a March House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing memo.

The 1977 surface mining law created a system for these abandoned mine lands in which reclamation activities are funded by a fee imposed on current mining operations. The Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund is predicted to have raised $11.2 billion by the end of this fiscal year, according to the hearing memo.

Each state with sites still affected by abandoned coal mining operations receives 50 percent of the fees collected in the state as well as an additional sum based on the amount of historic coal production there. The Department of Treasury directs funds to states that do not qualify as still affected by abandoned coal mining operations as needed, but they are limited to 50 percent of the fees collected from coal mining within that state.

Rogers’ proposal would release $1 billion from the balance in the fund. This money would otherwise go towards restoring abandoned mine lands after the fee system expires in 2021.

Conrad said that the future of the bill depends on the Congressional Budget Office cost analysis and the speed with which the bill gets through the House and Senate.

“If this doesn’t get done in the first session of this Congress that will finish in December, it may be real tough to move it in the second session,” Conrad said. “That will be an election year and things are going to get squirrelly.”

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