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State deserves help

| Saturday, May 13, 2006

For communities in 46 of the commonwealth's 67 counties, spring means another outdoor season in which families will know the agony of death and injury caused by abandoned coal mines.

More than 1.4 million Pennsylvanians live within a mile of an abandoned mine site. Each year, children and adults drown in pools of acid water, fall from dangerous high walls, and tumble into exposed mine shafts that are often filled with toxic fumes.

These tragedies have been repeated in Pennsylvania for decades since the same coal industry that once helped build our economy walked away from worked-out mine sites, abandoning them to poison more than 3,000 miles of biologically dead rivers and streams and creating hazardous and ruined landscapes that limit opportunities for jobs and economic development in many of Pennsylvania's coalfield communities.

But because of legislation introduced by Pennsylvania's two U.S. senators, there is now hope that the worst of these abandoned mine sites can finally be made safe and clean.

In 1977, when Congress passed a federal law requiring environmental reclamation of new mines, the law also required the coal industry to pay a very small per-ton fee to fund restoration of previously abandoned mines. Pennsylvania's governors and Department of Environmental Protection, facing America's worst legacy of abandoned mines, have done the best they could, year after year, as Congress broke its own promise and held back many of the cleanup funds. In 2006, in Pennsylvania and most other historic coal-producing regions, the promised cleanup has not been completed.

Pennsylvania's U.S. senators are fighting to make the program work again. It is a difficult battle. The federal law requiring the cleanup of abandoned mines was set to expire June 30, but our senators have, three times, persuaded Congress to keep the law in place while efforts are made to re-write the law to make it more effective.

Our senators have persuaded key senators from other states that the dollar amount provided to Pennsylvania annually should be doubled, and then almost tripled, and that the payments should be mandatory. That will prevent Congress from continuing its habit of dipping into the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funds for other purposes.

These are remarkable accomplishments. We should be proud that when federal budgets for most domestic programs are under the knife, our senators have been able to get guaranteed increased annual spending for Pennsylvania AML cleanup. However, the AML legislation introduced by our senators has not yet been able to overcome some critical problems created by other interests.

For example, the bill actually reduces the small fee that coal companies pay into the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund. This means that the proposed AML legislation may not generate enough money to fund the cleanup of even the very worst of the abandoned mine damage in Pennsylvania. Depending on whether the revenue estimates from DEP or from the coal industry are accurate, the current legislation could still leave Pennsylvania short of the money needed to clean up the highest-priority damage to our communities, rivers and streams.

At the coal industry's insistence, the legislation also would eliminate some environmental provisions from existing law, making it more difficult for many states to clean up waters contaminated by abandoned mines.

We are concerned that critics focusing on the legislation's weaknesses will prevent the bill from becoming law, no matter how much good would be done by the mandatory increased annual funding of AML restoration in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania AML Campaign believes it is essential that the pending AML legislation become law.

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