1977 Law Failed to Solve Problem of Abandoned Mines
June 5, 2003
Many states have scores of abandoned mines, which can be extremely dangerous. People falling into mineshafts are only part of the problem. Some mines catch fire and blaze for decades, while others fill up with water and then disgorge millions of gallons of pollutants into rivers and streams.
Congress tried to deal with the problem in 1977 through the Surface Mining and Control Reclamation Act, but that program has proved contentious, with few of the bureaucrats administering it able to agree on what is needed.
- The law imposed fees on coal companies based on how much they mine; the program has collected almost $7 billion so far.
- The money goes into a federal trust fund that is supposed to be used to reduce the health and safety hazards posed by abandoned mines.
- But after 26 years, an estimated 80 percent of the total area at risk hasn't yet been safeguarded, the trust fund brims with $1.5 billion in unspent funds, and some of the money that is spent goes to projects unrelated to coal.
- That leaves Pennsylvania and the country's seven other most mine-riddled states with only a trickle of funds to seal forsaken mines and clean up the mess.
The law is up for renewal next year, and Eastern states want to direct more funds to regions with lots of abandoned mines, but Western states don't want to give up their revenue.
The hazards are likely to grow more dangerous and expansive. Nationwide, the U.S. Interior Department estimates that 3.5 million Americans live less than a mile from hazardous abandoned coal mines, a figure that will rise as housing construction continues to spread into the countryside.
Source: John J. Fialka, "As Threat of Old Mines Grows, A Legislative Fix Isn't Working," Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2003.
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