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Bush proposes cuts in mine cleanups

Tuesday February 5, 2002
By Ken Ward Jr.
Charleston Gazette Online

In his second federal budget proposal, President Bush has again called for cuts in spending on abandoned coal mine cleanups. Bush proposed a 14 percent cut in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands, or AML, program. He proposed $174 million next year for the program, down from $203 million this year. At the same time, the administration projected that the unspent balance in the federal AML trust fund would surpass $2 billion by the end of the 2003 financial year.

The AML budget cuts announced Monday drew immediate criticism from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., a longtime advocate of increased spending on the program.
Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, called the cuts "rather insulting to coalfield citizens and to the coal industry itself." "The unspent balance in the AML trust fund, financed by a coal production fee, will soar to over $2 billion under this budget," Rahall said. "The money to do the job and to create jobs in the coalfields is there. It makes no sense to nickel and dime us under these circumstances." Overall, Bush proposed to cut funding for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining's enforcement and regulatory functions by nearly 9 percent, to $284 million. OSM already has far fewer inspectors than it used to have. During the Clinton administration, severe budget cuts cost the agency about one-quarter of its employees.

In a news release Monday afternoon, acting OSM Director Glenda Owens said, "President Bush's budget supports our regulatory and abandoned mine lands reclamation programs plus those of 24 states that receive federal funds from the Interior Department for their surface mining programs.
"The surface mining program has already accomplished an impressive amount of reclamation, and we will continue to work with states to address what remains to be done," Owens said.

In 1977, Congress created the AML program when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Financed by a tax on coal production, the program provides states with money to reclaim mined lands abandoned and left unreclaimed prior to August 1977, when the law was passed.
Currently, West Virginia alone has more than $600 million in unreclaimed abandoned mine sites. According to OSM, the state needs more than $200 million to reclaim dangerous highwalls and $200 million to stop underground mine fires. The state also needs more than $53 million to fix pre-1977 mine subsidence and $45 million to clean up dangerous mine waste piles, according to OSM.

Bush proposed to cut OSM grants to states to clean up these sites by $17 million, to $144 million, Owens said. Last year, Bush proposed to cut $35 million in OSM mine cleanup grants to states. That move was reversed. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Rahall put the money back into the Interior Department's budget.
In his budget plan, submitted to Congress Monday morning, Bush also proposed a nearly 6 percent cut in the coal enforcement arm of the US Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The cut would reduce MSHA's coal enforcement budget from $124 million to $117 million. At the same time, MSHA will increase assessed violations from 126,000 a year to 132,000, the Bush budget proposes. Last year, the number of coal miners killed on the job nationwide increased from 38 to 42. Thirteen miners died in one explosion at an underground mine in Alabama.

In budget documents, the administration projects a drop in coal mining fatalities to 25 this year and 21 next year. "The enforcement strategy in 2003 will be an integrated approach that links all actions to preventing occupational injuries and illnesses," the budget proposal says. "The desired outcome of these enforcement efforts is to lower fatality and injury rates."

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