Pa. and other coal states could lose hundreds of millions in mine cleanup funds

    Pennsylvania could lose hundreds of millions of dollars for abandoned mine cleanup projects that come from a federal coal production tax because of an amendment Montana Senator Max Baucus tacked onto the Surface Transportation law in July.

    The amendment capped payments to states that have completed abandoned coal mine reclamation projects. Wyoming would look to be the only state affected because it’s the only state that exceeds the cap of 15 million dollars a year and has finished its reclamations. But, the Baucus amendment creates big problems for other coal states, says Greg Conrad, director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, a multi-state governmental agency.

    “The payments that are not made to Wyoming are not reallocated to other states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia who would receive the benefits of these reallocated payments,” says Conrad.

    The Commission figures Pennsylvania, the state with the most land impacted by abandoned mines, could lose up to $200 million dollars in the next decade. This is money that many people thought was guaranteed when the coal production tax was reauthorized in 2006 and high-producing western coal states agreed to foot the lion’s share of funding for eastern states with a long history of abandoned mines.

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    John Dawes, director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds says, “It’s tragic that we have an army of citizens that are ready to utilize these funds in Pennsylvania through watershed associations and conservancies and their projects would be put on hold because of this reduction that was done by someone in another state acting against Wyoming.”

    Citizen groups have made a dent in remediating Pennsylvania’s four to five thousand miles of streams impaired by acid mine drainage and the nearly 200,000 acres of impacted land.

    One example is the ongoing cleanup of the Indian Creek watershed in Fayette and Westmoreland counties. Restoration projects there could be delayed or stopped by the reduction in funds.

    Certainly that’s Bev Braverman’s big worry. On this morning, the Mountain Watershed Association director gives a tour of one of their abandoned mine treatment systems. At one end of pond, rusty orange water pours in from an old underground mine.

    “It has very acid quality, which kills aquatic life, and it goes into a passive treatment system that cost over a million dollars to build from money from the program that’s in jeopardy because of the Baucus amendment,” Braverman says.

    The relatively small Indian Creek watershed has more than 130 discharges from abandoned mines. The group has identified 11 major discharges which- if treated- would restore most of Indian Creek. Two treatment projects are left to be completed.

    Braverman and others have written to their representatives about a remedy. They’re hoping Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey will take the lead. So far, Casey has signed onto a recent bill in the Senate to invalidate the Baucus amendment. Casey did not return calls.

    Congressman Nick Rahall from West Virginia who initiated a similar House bill said in an email to The Allegheny Front that the Baucus amendment “broke the historic agreement reached between Eastern and Western coal states in 2006…This bill aims to right that wrong.”

    This story was published on Sept. 8, 2012, on The Allegheny Front.

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