Pennsylvania lawmakers hope to repeal an amendment in the national Surface Transportation Bill that is estimated to deprive the commonwealth of about $178 million to $200 million in federal mine reclamation funds over the next decade.
Used for mine reclamation and acid mine drainage programs, the funds come from a federal tax on the active coal mining industry under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. Money is placed into the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and then distributed to qualifying states for remediation projects directly related to the coal industry.
While Pennsylvania received about $67 million from the fund in 2012, the new amendment places a cap on those annual payouts at just $15 million - leaving officials to question how the state can foot a $15 billion cleanup bill across dozens of counties.
"Pennsylvania has the most abandoned mine problems of any state in the country," said Andy McAllister, regional director of the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. "This is very disconcerting for our communities."
Clearfield County and other parts of Pennsylvania's 5th District "have the most problems in the country," concerning abandoned and polluted mines, McAllister said.
From the time the reclamation act was reauthorized in 2006 to the end of the re-authorization period in 2022, Pennsylvania was expected to collect about $1.4 billion in mine reclamation funds, McAllister said.
But the state faces a much larger problem - the extent of Pennsylvania's mining-related problems is expected to cost an estimated $15 billion to fix, McAllister said.
"This is beyond absurd," state Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Houtzdale, said. "Mine reclamation projects are among the most important in Pennsylvania, because they create jobs and clean up our water. To see this funding disappear could halt decades of progress."
In July, money was "raided" from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to close an estimated $700 million gap in the U.S. Senate's Surface Transportation Budget, McAllister said.
The payout cap was proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in an effort to prevent "certified" states - those that had already completed their major abandoned mine reclamation projects - from receiving a disproportionate chunk of funding to spend on roadways and other projects, McAllister said.
But the law does not specify how "uncertified" states affected by the mining industry will be funded.
"As a result, Pennsylvania is going to lose $17.8 million a year," and upwards of $200 million over the next decade, McAllister said. "The people of Pennsylvania deserve all the money that's due them to get this fixed."
Pennsylvania has about 29,000 acres of "high-priority, coal-mining-related problems," according to a press release from George's office.
"Transportation funding is important, and I support those projects, but not at the expense of mine reclamation," George said. "There are other places where we can find that money."
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, said he supported House Resolution 6113, which would repeal the limitation on annual payments. The bill is being discussed in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
"While the Senate's goal of improving the AML fund was laudable, the provision is misguided," Shuster said.
In the Senate, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., introduced legislation to repeal the amendment and remove the funding restrictions.
"Pennsylvanians already bear a significant burden with abandoned mine land cleanup and could suffer unfairly without even the opportunity for debate," Casey said. "This measure would ensure that the commonwealth will continue to receive the funding they were expecting to clean up abandoned mines and keep our communities safe."
George said he intends to work with members of Congress to see that the funding is restored
"It's very simple - we cannot let Pennsylvania lose $178 million in mine reclamation funds," George said.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.