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Lawmaker, activists push for reclamation

| Saturday, May 5, 2012, 1:29 a.m.

A grandchild to two former coal miners, U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, heard concerns Wednesday of seven Western Pennsylvania environmental activists regarding the status of a current congressional proposal for reauthorization of the federal mine reclamation fund.

"I grew up in the McCandless, Shaler, North Hills area, so I know about the mining industry, I've seen the orange creeks, and everybody around here knows that can't be good," Hart said yesterday at the Delmont Volunteer Fire Department.

The reauthorization deadline for the fund, installed as part of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, is June 30.

The federal fund requires active mining operations nationwide to pay a fee on coal produced at a rate of 35 cents per ton for surface-mined coal; 15 cents per ton for deep-mined coal; and 10 cents per ton for lignite coal.

Since 2004, Congress has agreed to two one-year extensions to the fund.

The current proposal under Congressional review calls for mandatory federal spending on reclamation projects in Pennsylvania, Hart said.

"It becomes sort of a program that will disperse money annually that will be already in law, versus us having to go every year with a special bill that would say this much money is going to go to this kind of reclamation. So it's a better system," Hart said.

However, the proposal also includes a 20 percent reduction in the required per-ton fee from active coal mining operations, said John Dawes, administrator of the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Program and developer of the Abandoned Minelands Campaign.

"We do not agree with that. What we're looking at right now is a shortfall as a result of that reduction in fee," Dawes said, adding that, under the proposal, surface-mined coal would bring in only 28 cents per ton, deep-mined coal only 12 cents per ton, and lignite only 8 cents per ton.

Nick Pinizzotto, of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said even the current fee structure may not suit the state's needs in the face of inflation levels.

"If you think about it, that was set in 1977," Pinizzotto said. "The cost of business to fix these things has gone up, which makes our gap bigger and bigger in actually addressing the problem."

Hart said the issue of the proposed fee reduction could slow the road to fund reauthorization.

"(The reduction) is a stumbling block," Hart said. "(Congress' decision) could be on a really quick timetable, or it could not be, but the proposal is not necessarily dead if it does not happen right now."

Others in attendance were Ron Rohall, of Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts; Bruce Golden, of Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation; John Walliser, of Pennsylvania Environmental Council; Brian Gallagher, of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy; and Craig Barras, of the Turtle Creek Watershed Association.

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