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Editorial: Mine reclamation program needs an overhaul

January 4, 2019

Ohio officials recently were cautioned by a federal official that a decision by Gov. John Kasich’s administration to take money out of a coal-mining reclamation fund someday could mean that taxpayers are left holding the bill for cleaning up abandoned mines. The official — Ben Owens, with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement — makes a good point, but the issue spreads far beyond Ohio’s border.

A few other states have been targeted with the same criticism, but a remedy for the potential problem has yet to be put in place.

At the center of the issue is the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, established by Congress decades ago so that funds would be available to clean up abandoned coal mines. The fund uses money collected from a tax on coal production to fund state reclamation programs. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) annually issues grants to coal-mining states for that specific purpose.

In Ohio’s case, the Kasich administration took $5 million from its reclamation fund in response to a significant shortfall in tax revenue in 2017. There are no plans currently to repay that money, a state official said.

It is just one example of funds being diverted from their intended use, according to federal officials.

In 2017, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of the Interior issued an evaluation of the that took several states as well as the OSMRE to task for not ensuring that the program’s funds were being used appropriately. It concluded that the agency allowed states to operate their reclamation programs without input from OSMRE regarding the selection of projects, resulting in non-coal reclamation projects being completed while coal-related hazards persisted.

Among states named in the report were Wyoming, Montana and Texas. Wyoming, for example, at the time had $90 million worth of unfunded coal reclamation projects, but the report noted that the state had spent $134 million on coal reclamation from 2008 through 2012 but far more - $329 million - on non-coal reclamation and non-reclamation projects. The report claimed Mississippi and Louisiana had not spent any money directly on their coal reclamation projects from 2008 to 2011.

The inspector general’s report included several recommendations, chief among them was requiring states give first priority to coal-related projects. Another was requiring states to update their reclamation plans.

Yet another issue related to how the funds are spent is whether the money is going to states that most need funds for appropriate projects.

Last February, the OSMRE announced its grant amounts for the coming year, and nearly a third -$91 million - was awarded to Wyoming. But that state’s lax interpretation of how it has used the money in the past has opened it up for criticism and brought some pressure to steer money to areas where it’s more needed, such as the dense, mountainous region of Appalachia. In this region, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania face serious issues that will cost millions upon millions to fix. And none of those states were singled out by the inspector general for criticism of how they spend the reclamation money.

Congress should take a close look at how the reclamation funds have been used and determine whether fixes are required. It seems clear that some are. And considering whether a portion of those funds should be redirected to other states would be a good angle to examine.

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