Sat, Feb

Environmentalists Press to Extend Federal Coal Tax for Strip-Mine Reclamation

Environmental advocates, labor groups and their supporters in Congress are racing against a Thursday deadline to extend a federal coal tax that reclaims abandoned strip mines and defrays health care costs for thousands of retired miners.

Sep. 28—WASHINGTON — Environmental advocates, labor groups and their supporters in Congress are racing against a Thursday deadline to extend a federal coal tax that reclaims abandoned strip mines and defrays health care costs for thousands of retired miners.

With efforts to reauthorize a long-term coal tax having failed for now, key senators from coal mining states are trying to extend the tax for nine months.

Under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, coal companies pay a fee of 35 cents per ton of coal from surface mines and 15 cents for underground operations.

If the coal tax expires, it would be a blow to Illinois, which receives about $10 million annually from the federal Abandoned Mine Land program to clean up sites, most in the southern part of the state.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., are tryig to tack the nine-month extension onto a temporary budget resolution this week that would keep the government operating under the status quo until Congress passes spending bills.

The Bush administration wants to lower the tax, and supporters aren't sure whether they can muster enough backing by midnight Thursday for an extension of nine months or less or any at all.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., referred to Illinois' backlog of abandoned mines as "a blight on our state. I think the coal industry needs to be part of the solution." He added, "What Byrd and Specter are doing is an attempt to bring the Bush administration around to what it ought to be doing."

The federal Office of Surface Mining proposed cutting the 35-cent-per-ton fee on strip-mined coal to 8.8 cents and the 15-cent underground mining fee to 3.8 cents. It said last week that it would collect that amount under its own authority if the tax expires.

The resulting $69 million raised annually would be enough to provide medical benefits for 17,400 coal miners in 45 states, who worked for companies that no longer exist. (According to the United Mine Workers, 112 of those miners are in Illinois and 25 are in Missouri.)

But that plan was deemed insufficient by the miners' union, and the issue has been raised in the presidential campaign in coal-mining states.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democrats' presidential nominee, wrote a letter to the White House last week calling the proposal irresponsible and asking President George W. Bush to use his clout to urge Congress to reauthorize the program before it expires.

"We do not need a plan that sells out the people's interests just to help special corporate interests," Kerry wrote.

Bush's supporters in Congress responded that the president should be given credit for taking action that would preserve benefits for miners who might otherwise be denied health care.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, sent a letter back to Kerry contending that he had supported legislation unfavorable to coal production.

"Sen. Kerry cannot be anti-coal and pro-coal miner at the same time," Pombo said in a news release.

Carol Raulsten, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, an industry group, declined Monday to discuss the coal tax issue, referring to the "variety of interests" among her organization's members. The group had contended recently that it saw no immediate crisis given an unspent balance of nearly $1.7 billion in the Abandoned Mine Land fund.

Environmental groups and others say that balance would only begin to pay for remaining cleanup costs, and that if the tax isn't extended, states will be left holding the bag much as they were when the Superfund for hazardous-waste cleanup expired.

Two of the nation's leading coal companies, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal Inc., are based in St. Louis. Peabody Energy spokesman Vic Svec said his company generally supports the extension of the Abandoned Mine Land fund which, he said, can clean up some of the abandoned and "orphaned" mine sites across the country. Representatives of Arch Coal Inc did not immediately respond to inquiries about the debate.

Bush is generally viewed as an ally to coal operators for his administration's efforts to promote expansion of mining and ease some of the coal-burning rules that the industry has found burdensome.

The president spoke by videotape to a convention of mining interests in Las Vegas on Monday, declaring that the companies' efforts "are vital to our economic security and our way of life."

Whether or not Congress extends the taxing authority on a temporary basis, the debate will continue over reauthorizing provisions of the law, passed in 1977 during the Carter administration.

Louise Dunlap, a lobbyist in Washington for the nonpartisan Citizens Coal Council, said that the aim of the environmental groups she represents is continuing the mining fees at their present level.

"It would be devastating to citizens in coal fields, including miners and their families, if there was any interruption in the collection of the fees," she said.

In Illinois, Al Clayborne, manager of the Department of Natural Resources' abandoned mined land reclamation division, said that his state still has abandoned mine sites that will cost about $54 million to reclaim.

Clayborne said that his agency "fully and wholeheartedly" supports reauthorizing provisions of the 27-year-old strip mine law.

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