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9/17/2004

Time for Congress to take Action

Sept. 30 could be the beginning of the end for our state if Congress does not take action to extend a federal program that supports retired miners benefits and mining reclamation.

The Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, is a program created in 1977, when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Under the program, coal operators pay 35 cents tax per ton of surface-mined coal and 15 cents per ton of underground-mined coal. The money is used to clean up coal mines that were abandoned before 1977.
If that happens, thousands of abandoned mine sites — mostly in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky — would go unreclaimed.

Currently the AML is languishing on capital hill and set to expire at the end of September
Without congressional action, the coal tax that funds mine cleanups would expire Sept. 30.

As a result, more than $2 billion worth of high-priority coal reclamation will remain unreclaimed, leaving millions of people who live, work and recreate in the nation’s coalfields to continue to be exposed to the many dangers these areas represent.

Kentuckians and tax payers of other coal producing states could be forced to pay for the clean-up, instead of the coal operators. The state is already in a budget crisis and paying for this would sink the Bluegrass in to a much deeper deficit - one that potentially we would never find our way out of.

Lawmakers and Interior’s Office of Surface Mining have showed great humanitarism by allowing AML money to fund infrastructure projects like health-care benefits (UMWA Orphan Funds) for retired miners who have fallen between the cracks by coal corporation bankruptcies.

On Aug. 31 in Lexington, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge William Howard finalized the decision allowing Horizon Natural Resources to file bankruptcy, thus voiding union contracts providing health care coverage for nearly 3,000 employees, including 2,300 retirees -- many of whom suffer from black lung as a result of their working years at Horizon. Many of these affected by the decision are Kentuckians who's only hope for health care is for the AML to continue.

Cutting off the health care benefits provided by the tax could not only devastate thousands of retired coal miners lives, but also be detrimental to the state's local economies who's doctors and pharmacies main source of income is treatment of these miners.

Congress Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., with support of House Democrats, took the first step Sept. 14 to stave off the end of the federal program.

Byrd won Senate Appropriations Committee approval to extend a tax that funds the cleanup program for another nine months, but so far no outward support has been shown by House Republicans to save the issue.
The far reaching effects of letting the AML languish and die could spell disaster for the Bluegrass State.


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