Federal funds will help with abandoned mine clean-up

Federal funds will help with abandoned mine clean-up

Pennsylvania will finally see a little more help with cleaning up abandoned mine lands, of which there are several in Clarion County. (See related story below.)

A federal fund based on per-ton fees paid by coal mine operators has been reauthorized and renegotiated, sending $1.4 billion to the state over the next 18 years to help eliminate pollution and safety hazards at abandoned mines sites.

Pennsylvania will be second only to Wyoming ($1.6 billion) in the funds for the clean-ups and for benefits for retired miners who worked for companies that no longer exist.

Nationwide, the fund will supply $7.9 billion for mine clean-up.

Legislation attached to a bill in the House of Representative was approved Dec. 8 by a vote of 376 to 45. The Senate then took up the bill and approved it in the early morning hours of Dec. 9. President Bush signed the bill into law Dec. 20.

The measure was backed by U.S. Rep. John Peterson (R-5) as well as Pennsylvania ’s Republican senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.

The main part of the HR 6111 was not about abandoned mines: The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 was what is known as an omnibus bill with provisions covering a broad range of topics.

The bill almost didn’t make it, as opposition to an amendment which would have allowed off-shore drilling along the Gulf Coast almost killed the entire bill. The amendment was rejected by only a few votes.

Peterson called Congress’ passage of the bill a much needed response to response to a national emergency.

”The health and safety hazards created by abandoned coal mines constitute a national emergency for which there must be a swift, national response,” he said.

”For far too long, though, the federal fund created to accelerate the clean-up and reclamation of our most dangerous sites was sending far too much money to places where there wasn’t an abandoned mine to b found.

”We changed that formula, and”¦created the conditions necessary to clean up our sites sooner than we could have ever imagined,” Peterson said.

A long battle

The Pennsylvania Abandoned Mine Land Campaign, a coalition of more than 200 conservation, environmental and community groups in Pennsylvania , had been pushing the U.S. Congress take action to reestablish the funding of abandoned mine cleanup projects in the state and nationwide.

Critics said the federal government was not releasing the clean-up and was diverting the money to other purposes.

Action was slow in coming. The hang-up had apparently been over disagreements between eastern and western coal-producing states over how the funds would be distributed.

Legislators from eastern coal states had complained that clean-up money was being sent to western states that had few or no abandoned coal mines.

The Pennsylvania Abandoned Mine Lands Campaign Dec. 1 called on the Pennsylvania delegation to Congress to go back to Washington and pass legislation to re-authorize a fund to pay for abandoned mine clean-ups.

The fund, in place for nearly 30 years, requires coal companies to pay a per-ton fee with the money to be used to clean up abandoned mines and water polluted by mine drainage, and to pay health benefits of miners retired from bankrupt mining companies.

But the fund has been increasingly tapped for purposed unrelated to mining, and reclamation money has been short for Pennsylvania and other eastern states.

Wide-spread support

The new proposal would reduce coal-company fees by 20 percent, and support is widespread in Pennsylvania . Fifty conservation districts and 31 county governments have passed resolutions calling for reauthorization of the fund.

”This is the most important economic development and environmental legislation to affect our state and other historic coal-producing states that has ever passed,” said R. John Dawes, chair of the Pennsylvania AML campaign.

”This is life-saving legislation that goes beyond addressing the health impacts of living near these sites, Dawes said, noting that accidents at abandoned mine sites have killed more people in that last four years than have died in underground mining accidents.

While Democrats and Republicans often battle over environmental issues, support for reauthorizing the abandoned mine fund has generally been widespread and bi-partisan.

Since the new measure reduces the fees paid by coal operators by 20 percent, even Pennsylvania ’s mining industry, both labor and management, backed the measure.

Democrat Ed Rendell heaped praise on everyone involved in getting the bill through Congress.

”The long-term reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands Trust Fund 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.

” Pennsylvania has the largest abandoned mine problem in the country, with nearly one of every ten people living within one mile of a dangerous site. Abandoned mines hinder economic growth, threaten public health and safety, and place our former mining communities at a competitive disadvantage.”

Nearly 1.4 million Pennsylvanians live within a mile of abandoned mine lands, and 44 of the state’s 67 counties are affected by abandoned mines.

There are more than 5,000 abandoned mine sites totaling 250,000 acres in the state, and acidic mine drainage has killed 4,600 miles of creeks and streams.

Many abandoned mine sites include dangerous high walls, flooded pits and deep-mine openings. In the Anthracite Region of Eastern Pennsylvania, there have been 45 people killed and 18 injured at abandoned mine sites in the past 30 years.

”Finally, and thankfully, we now have common sense legislation that will go a very long way to fixing the long-standing problems of abandoned mine lands and waters across our state,” said Bruce Golden, the regional coordinator for the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

” Pennsylvania , whose AML problems dwarf all others, owes a great deal of gratitude to Congressman Peterson for the environmental good that will come from this historic piece of legislation.

”It’s a new day in Pennsylvania ,” Golden concluded.

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