By Dale Mann
(Note: This story is the first of a two-part feature. The first part focuses on the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund’s tax on the coal industry which perpetuates the use of coal as a fuel source in states like Pennsylvania that have extreme AML coal waste conditions. The second part focuses on the ability of local watershed groups and CFB plants to shoulder the financial and environmental task of assisting the state in its restricted cleanup process.)
HARMAR TWP., Pa. – As environmental groups continue to condemn coal as a fuel source, the federally-designated tax on the coal industry to clean up the nation’s abandoned mine lands has Pennsylvania hoping for a profitable future for the industry, according to Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the PA DEP.
“The modern coal industry is paying to clean up what the old coal industry did,” he acknowledged.
Rathbun says that the abandoned mine lands in Pennsylvania currently house 2.4 billion tons of hazardous coal waste.
Rathbun says that because mine lands had no regulations with regards to waste coal prior to 1977, that these lands and the waste they contain have now become the state’s burden.
In a January press release, environmental group the National Resource Defense Council urged the EPA to, “strengthen the regulations around coal waste to prevent further reckless and dangerous contamination of our water, air and land.”
In 2008 Pennsylvania reclaimed 968 acres of abandoned mine lands and is currently working on another 47 projects which will restore an additional 1,710 acres, Rathbun said.
In total, the campaign invested $32M into the state’s economy, according to DEP acting Secretary, John Hanger.
However, only those sites categorized as Priority One and Priority Two projects, those which pose a structural danger to the public, are scheduled to receive revenue in the form of the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund.
“The money’s not really available for environmental issues,” said Rathbun, “At this point, federal money goes to cleaning up the safety aspect.”
“We are going to get $29M this year, but that money is for Priority One and Priority Two sites … dangerous holes, unmarked openings and things like that,” Rathbun elaborated, referring to the 47 sites stated in the March press release.
The AMLF is federal funding collected from the current coal industry in order to atone for its lack of early government regulation, Rathbun explained.
The Fund began in 1977, prior to any environmental awareness issues, and was largely used to facilitate those mines listed in the AMLIS database.
The protocol for divestment of the AMLF is based on the categorization of AMLs in the Abandoned Land Mine Information System, Rathbun said.
The list of mines contained in the AMLIS database is a collection of the worst AMLs in the United States.
The U.S. Government compiled the comprehensive assessment in response to the enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, Rathbun explained.
“All of these problem areas are entered into AMLIS, and the state goes through that list and decides which ones need to be done,” Rick Balog of the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation said. The OSMR works in conduit with the DEP to focus on Pennsylvania’s reclamation efforts.
As the federal arm of the state’s program, the OSMR handles predominantly abandoned mine disaster emergencies, such as the abandoned refuse pile fire which was recently extinguished in Indiana Township.
The non-emergency lands are more meticulously planned and implemented via AMLIS, Balog said.
AMLIS ranks the AMLs throughout the country based on the level of danger that they pose as structures, not as environmental hazards, according to Rathbun.
“They prioritized them by their danger, and they didn’t really think about the environmental impact,” he said.
Because of the initial environmental unawareness that contributed to the AMLIS problem as it appears now, the federally-provisioned AMLF is not applicable to those mines which are structurally sound, although they still pose health and environmental hazards, Rathbun said.
In February, the NRDC issued a press release in which it specifically cited Mary Anne Hitt, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club’s “Move Beyond Coal” campaign, who lambasted the OSM and its efforts to clean up the AMLs.
“Putting OSM in charge of regulating toxic coal combustion waste is like having a fox guard the hen house,” Hitt said.
“Already on OSM’s watch, dozens of coal waste impoundments have failed,” she added.
Although Rathbun admits that many aspects of the way in which the list was compiled can be scrutinized now, the original accounting of all of the mine lands in the country was quite commendable, considering the task.
According to AMLIS, most of the mines surrounding the Alle-Kiski Valley are not priorities, including the Indiana Twp. mine which burned from Feb. through April.
In fact, the only mines near the A-K Valley listed on the AMLIS database are: the Rural Ridge and Linhart sites in Allegheny County; Pine Run, Export and Delmont South in Westmoreland County, and the nearby Marco Project at Beaver Run.
Although this year’s 47 projects will exceed the allotted $29M, Rathbun explained that the funding would be drawn from multiple years, as most of the projects can take up to a year-and-a-half to complete.
“So, when we say there’s $57.8 M in projects underway, you know some of those projects can be spread out over multiple years just waiting for the final reimbursement receipts to come in,” he explained.
Rathbun explained that while a project may only take 2 or 3 months of actual work, those two or three months may occur over a span of more than a year.
As an example, Rathbun cited a scenario in which a project might be nearly complete by July, but because it was too late to establish vegetation, the crew would have to return again in the fall in order to do so. Then, in order to re-establish vegetation that didn’t grow, the crew might have to return again the following spring.
“The final payment is made when the project is completed, vegetation has been established, there is no mine drainage, and it’s been proven that the project was successful,” he added.
According to a March press release from the DEP, most of the funding for those AML reclamation sites came from the AMLF.
Other sources of funding are: Growing Greener grants, which are primarily used for mine drainage projects; and forfeitures of reclamation bonds by mining companies who are unwilling or unable to restore the site once the mining project has been completed.
The press release also stated that Pennsylvania still has 180,000 acres of AMLs which date back to the 1700’s when mining first began in the state.
Environmental groups such as the NRDC continue to condemn the environmental hazards of coal waste and seek more stringent government regulations on the coal industry, as well as on the states.
“Coal waste poses a large and unnecessary risk to people’s health and the environment,” said Executive Director of the NRDC, Peter Lehner, in a March press release.
When confronted with Lehner’s assertion, Rathbun agreed.
“Yeah, I would agree with that,” he said, adding that abandoned mine waste yields a higher quantity of sulfur and other environmentally-detrimental elements.
While he acknowledges the environmental and health risks posed by coal waste, Rathbun is also aware of the financial and theoretical constraints faced by the state with regards to its long-term removal.
Rathbun explained that while the AMLF assists the state with reclamation and restoration efforts, it is also funded by a tax on the current coal industry and therefore reliant on increased production for increased funding.
“If the modern industry has a good year and sells a lot of coal, then they’re putting a lot of money into that fund,” he said.