By Arthur R. Wardle
July 8, 2017 - Big money attracts big interests in Washington, D.C. The Abandoned Mine Land fund (AML), which collects and disburses billions of dollars to reclaim abandoned coal mines, is no exception.
Congress, unions and other special interests have repeatedly attempted to tap into the fund’s large reserves for their own benefit. Congress is currently attempting to throw funding mean for abandoned mines toward “economic revitalization,” which would threaten the fund’s reclamation objective. Vigilant resistance to these changes is the only thing preventing the AML from turning into a slush fund.
Congress built the fund as part of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in response to mounting environmental problems stemming from the nation’s many abandoned coal mine sites. The fund uses money collected from a tax on coal production to fund state reclamation programs.
Though not as ideal as charging the original polluters, the AML does a nice job of placing responsibility for environmental problems in the hands of those closest to the problem’s origin. Surface mining coal companies of today pay for the degradation resulting from surface coal mining of the past, when environmental protections from corporate environmental policies and government regulation were not nearly as robust. The legitimacy of the fund is based on that principle of internalizing the industry’s damages.
The fund has been instrumental in cleaning up the messes of mining yesteryear. Nearly 800,000 acres of U.S. land and water have benefitted from AML-funded cleanup. Although that progress is impressive, plenty of work remains. Bureau of Land Management property in California alone still contains over 19,000 abandoned sites that present a danger to physical safety. There are so many sites requiring reclamations that many states do not even have a complete list.
Expansion of the fund’s use for economic development projects, as Congressional leaders have recently advocated, reduces the money available for reclamation projects. Small reforms like allowing a wider array of reclamation projects or cutting the coal production tax rate would draw down the current fund reserves without disrupting the fund’s original and important purpose.
Misusing the fund is a tantalizing prospect for a variety of special interests. For example, Congress punished the state of Wyoming for spending its reclamation funding on unrelated public works projects. Mine workers’ unions have successfully managed to wheedle Congress into diverting abandoned mine funds to their benefits programs and have recently sought to divert even more. Fortunately, these abuses make up only a small amount of of the fund’s disbursements. Everything considered, the AML has largely maintained its integrity.
Turning the Abandoned Mine Land fund into a slush fund jeopardizes ongoing reclamation work for short-term political favors. The fund is good policy because it focuses its taxation on a specific industry to remedy a specific problem caused by that industry. Even if the potential beneficiaries of AML fund diversions legitimately deserve public funding, that money needs to come from elsewhere. Our reclamation work is not done. If we allow political gamesmanship to imperil the fund, it may never be.