House CR Restores Mine Clean Up Funds to States - Except Wyoming

On Thursday, September 13, the House overwhelmingly approved a six month continuing resolution by a vote of 320-91 to keep the federal government running through March 2013. Tucked away in the stop-gap measure is a small provision to restore cuts inadvertently made by Congress in the transporation reauthorization bill to the abandoned mine lands (AML) program for all states with the exception of Wyoming.

In 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act which created the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to ensure that lands used for coal mining would be restored and returned to conditions that could support activities before mining occurred.  The legislation charged coal companies a reclamation fee and a production fee based on the tonnage of coal produced from surface and underground mining operations and were put in the AML program. Today, those fees stand at 31.5 cents per ton for reclamation and 13.5 cents per ton of coal for production. Before the law was passed, many states were burdened with thousands of hazardous abandoned mines that posed significant environmental problems and public safety risks for communities.   Under the law, 50 percent of the money was to be returned to individual states for reclamation efforts and the remainder went to the Department of Interior to help other states across the country that needed extra assistance to alleviate extraordinary clean-up situations. 

Changes to the law by Congress in 2006 made disbursements from the fund "mandatory" rather than "discretionary", thereby avoiding the uncertain appropriations process which rarely ever gave states their promised rate of return. Funding for certain projects by "certified states", those which declare that large coal mine restoration work is completed, have come under media scrutiny that questioned the uses for such projects like renovations of sports arenas instead of environmental restoration work.   The Obama administration has also raised concerns over with the program’s  effectiveness as significant amounts of funding go to states that no longer have major mine remediation work. The President's budget embraced a recommendation by the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan to cap funding to "certified states" and replace the traditional AML funding formula with a competitive grants process for states with "high priority" sites. Overall, the budget estimated that capping AML funds would save more than $1 billion over the next 10 years. 

The long and acrimonious debate surrounding the transportation reauthorization bill reached a culminating point in June 2012 when Congressional leaders were short of finding enough offsets to pay for legislation. The appeal of using a revenue raiser to limit funding for mine clean-up in certified states proved too tempting for conferees of the transportation reauthorization bill. A provision to cap payments at $15 million for abandoned mine reclamation in certified states and tribes was added when finishing touches were made to the final bill. Negotiators at the time thought the negative blowback would be felt only from Wyoming, which was expected to lose $700 million in total funding, while sparing many other states because of the effect of the tailored legislative language. The simple solution, however, did not take into account the complexities in the existing AML funding structure and the inserted provision also cut funding for other “uncertified” states that still have serious environmental problems and needed restoration work. According to an analysis developed by the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, the states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone stand to lose $17.8 million and $10.2 million a year respectively because of the policy rider inserted in the transportation bill. Several states would see drops in promised AML funding as a result of the offset used in the transportation legislation. Illinois would lose $55 million; Kentucky, $54 million; Ohio, $34 million; Indiana, $18 million; Virginia, $16 million; and Alabama, $15 million; as well as 13 others that would see drops in promised allocations.  

Yesterday's action by Congress effectively went back and changed the language used in the transportation bill capping AML funding to meet the intent of the conferees when they inserted it. Thus, the only state being impacted by the $15 million cap would be Wyoming - which receives the largest amount of AML funding but has only recouped about 1/3 of the $3 billion in promised revenue under the law. The legislative deal brokered in the continuing resolution drew a sharp rebuke from Wyoming's lone House representative, Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis. She was quoted in an article from E&E Daily, "It has been fixed for every state except Wyoming. ... I think that's reprehensible that one state would be hung out to dry this way." The Senate is expected to take up and pass the continuing resolution next week.