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Reclamation tax faces renewal deadline

| Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006

A proposal that would speed the elimination of old mining hazards in Western Pennsylvania could disintegrate from budget pressures if the lame-duck Congress doesn't pass it in the next three days, a local supporter of the measure said.

Cynthia Carrow, spokeswoman for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said a coalition of Pennsylvania conservation and community groups believes that this week represents the best chance of saving a coal production tax that has paid for $90 million in abandoned mine land reclamation in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

"We feel that, in the next Congress, there will be significant pressure on the federal budget," Carrow said.

That pressure could make lawmakers reluctant to let go of $1.1 billion that has built up in the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund even though the money was set aside for state programs, including $60 million earmarked for Pennsylvania.

The next group of lawmakers may also disagree with a part of the proposal that would keep Congress from stockpiling dollars in the fund instead of releasing them to the states, Carrow said.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining maintains an inventory of abandoned mine lands and estimates how much it will take to eliminate the high-priority problems that pose a threat to public health and safety.

Of the $6.6 billion in projects on the federal list, projects totaling $4.6 billion are located in Pennsylvania and $72.5 million worth are in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Without the federal coal production tax that funds the program, Pennsylvania would only have state revenues to pay for reclamation projects. The tax was originally set to expire in 2004, but Congress has extended it several times while lawmakers worked on a compromise.

Chris Tucker, spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Venango County, said the proposal would increase Pennsylvania's spending on abandoned mine land reclamation from about $25 million per year to $60 million per year.

Carrow and Tucker said the lame-duck session scheduled to end Friday is the best time to push the proposal through because it has broad support from the current lawmakers in both the eastern and western mining states.

"Now seems to be the time to do it," Tucker said.

Jim Zoia, Democratic staff director on the House Resources Committee, said the Democratic members support pushing the proposal through this week.

"Everyone has come together on this particular matter. It transcends politics -- it transcends Republican and Democrat," he said.

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