Strickland says he won’t cozy up to coal interests

Strickland says he won’t cozy up to coal interests

Ohio’s troubles with coal mines could become a big headache for the state’s next governor, Ted Strickland.

When Strickland takes office next month, he might have to deal with a threatened federal takeover of Ohio’s coal programs.

But the governor-elect says that if Ohio needs to raise more money to clean up bankrupt mines, he will present coal companies with the bill.

“I think the coal operators should bear the burden,” he said.

An advocacy group says it will be watching to make sure he does, and it questions whether campaign donations from coal and power companies will affect Strickland’s coal policy.

These industries donated more than $110,000 to Strickland’s 2006 campaign, says the watchdog group.

“This looks like a weakness,” said Catherine Turcer, of Ohio Citizen Action. “We’re holding his feet to the fire, so to speak.”

Strickland said that campaign donations won’t affect how he solves problems.

“I get a little tired of people trying to make those kinds of projections,” he said. “I try to make decisions based on common sense.”

The state’s coal problems spring in part from an ultimatum the U.S. Office of Surface Mining delivered last year. Ohio was told that it must raise more money to clean up bankrupt mines or lose its authority to regulate the coal industry.

Many of the federal agency’s issues with Ohio were detailed in a three-day Dispatch series on coal mining, “Back in Black,” that began Dec. 3.

Among the problems:

Ӣ Bonds that coal companies post as bankruptcy insurance cover about a fourth of the total cleanup costs.

”¢ A 9-cent-per-ton-tax on coal that mining companies pay doesn’t come close to covering the difference and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ operations.

The gap has created a $3.8 million backlog of cleanup costs associated with mines that went bankrupt after federal environmental mining standards were enacted in 1978.

This backlog does not include more than $300 million in cleanup problems posed by mines abandoned decades before the federal law was passed. A bill in the Ohio legislature would increase taxes that coal companies pay to help clean up bankrupt mines. But critics say the $1.5 million the bill would raise each year isn’t enough.

“Ohio will continue to be stuck with a big tab,” said Jack Shaner, a lobbyist with the Ohio Environmental Council.

Coal-industry officials call the tax increase significant and say it would end the federal takeover threat.

“It will solve a lot of the problems we have in this state,” said Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association.

Supportive lawmakers hope to pass the plan within the next two weeks.

If federal officials reject it, the issue will fall to Strickland. Carey said he thinks the governor will deal with the industry and the environment fairly.

“There’s no doubt he’s been a friend to the folks of Appalachia for many years,” Carey said. “Coal mining is very important to that region.”

Strickland, a Democrat, has represented southeastern Ohio in Congress for 12 years.

Mines in Strickland’s 6 th Congressional District produced 16.7 million tons of coal in 2005, two-thirds of the 25.2 million tons dug up in Ohio that year.

The district also is home to six coal-burning power plants operated by American Electric Power, FirstEnergy, American Municipal Power and the Ohio Valley Electric Corp.

Ohio Citizen Action analyzed $13.6 million in donations Strickland reported from January 2005 through Sept. 30 and found that he received $35,300 from coal-company executives and employees.

An additional $75,710 was donated by Ohio power-company workers and lawyers in firms representing those companies.

The group’s analysis of Strickland’s Republican opponent, J. Kenneth Blackwell, showed that he received $41,999 from coal companies and $24,821 from electricity companies.

Mining and power companies donated a total of $159,606 to Strickland’s past five congressional bids, said Dwight L. Morris and Associates, a nonpartisan provider of campaignfinance information hired by The Dispatch. Those campaigns collected a total of $3.6 million from all donors.

Strickland said he supports ideas that would help Ohio’s coal industry grow and add jobs. He said coal companies also must ensure that streams are protected and that mined lands are repaired.

“I would look at this in a common-sense, practical manner,” he said. “I would look at the economic impact, the jobs that would be affected, and Ohio’s ability to be competitive.

“Having said that, I think the industry that’s benefiting (from coal) should be expected to make sure that they don’t harm the environment in a way that would require the taxpayer to come along and fix the problem,” Strickland said.

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