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abandoned PROMISES Why America's coalfields aren't cleaned

Published: Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Page: P1A
Byline: Ken Ward Jr. WHEN Interior Secretary Gale Norton wanted to promote the Bush administration's new plan to rework the federal abandoned mine cleanup program, she went first to Pennsylvania.

Long one of the nation's largest coal producers, Pennsylvania needs more money to clean up abandoned mine messes than any other state.

On Feb. 4, two days after she unveiled the administration's proposal, Norton traipsed around a mine waste pit near Shenandoah, Pa., with Jeff Jarrett, director of Interior's Office of Surface Mining.

"I was struck by how many people live within the midst of abandoned coal mines," Norton said, according to an Associated Press account of her trip.

In 1994, an 11-year-old boy drowned while swimming in the Shen-Penn pit Norton visited. Four years before that, a 16-year-old boy fell to his death near the same spot.

Pennsylvania officials say the site - previously targeted for a coal waste-to-fuel scheme that went belly up - would cost $28 million to reclaim.

That's money the state's Abandoned Mine Land program just doesn't have. It's nearly an entire year's AML budget for the whole state.

What Norton, Jarrett and local officials didn't say that day was that Pennsylvania is at the center of a growing dispute over how AML money is spent. Across the coalfields, some state AML managers and conservationists want to bump environmental restoration projects up on the AML priority list.

Cleaning up a stream, they say, should be ranked as a high priority, along with reclaiming a dangerous site like the Shen-Penn pit.

In 1999, Pennsylvania started this movement - in a big, big way. State officials added $3.6 billion of watershed cleanups to their AML project list. That action doubled the size of the entire nationwide AML inventory.

Pennsylvania officials cited a policy change by the Clinton administration as allowing their action.

Citizens Coal Council, a coalition of grass-roots coalfields groups, supports the policy. They say it's the only way to get money to treat acid mine drainage, considered the top water pollution problem in the nation's coalfields.

Earlier this year, Charles Gauvin, president of Trout Unlimited, tried to assure lawmakers that this proposal would not siphon money from health-and-safety cleanups.

"Ecological restoration should not be pitted against public health," Gauvin said during a March Senate hearing.

But with limited AML money available, more funding for one kind of project inevitably means less for another.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., says that the $3 billion in health-and-safety threats left in the coalfields should be cleaned up first.

As part of their effort to extend the AML program another 15 years, Rahall and Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., want to reverse Pennsylvania's action, and stop other states from doing the same thing.

The 'general welfare' clause When Congress created the AML program in 1977, it said sites that threaten public health and safety should come first. Environmental cleanups would wait.

Lawmakers also wrote in an exemption. Projects that protect "the general welfare" from coal-mining damage could be considered high-priority, along with health and safety threats.

For 17 years, the OSM never really defined "general welfare." State AML administrators generally didn't try to use the loophole.

But in 1995, OSM Director Bob Uram wanted to spend more money to clean up streams polluted with acid mine drainage. Under previous OSM policies, acid mine drainage would be considered a lower-priority project, unless the polluted stream was directly used for drinking water.

Uram said that, under his new policy, "Acid problems that resulted in the elimination of fish from a stream, but did not involve a health issue, since it was not a drinking-water source, could be looked at as to whether the loss of tourist dollars was impacting the community." Mine cleanups could be considered high-priority projects, Uram said, if "the problem to be reclaimed affects the protection of general welfare, i.e., the problem area is located in the immediate vicinity of a residential area or has an adverse economic impact upon a local community." Pennsylvania's problems The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers drain most of Western Pennsylvania, merging in downtown Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River.

In April, the group American Rivers ranked the two waterways among its annual list of the nation's most endangered waterways.

Over the years, coal mining along the rivers' headwaters uncovered toxic metals from the earth. When exposed to water and oxygen, those metals react to form acid mine drainage.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia both report hundreds of miles of streams tainted by the drainage. In both states, streams run bright orange, rust-colored or red.

In his 2004-05 budget, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell announced a four-year plan to pump $100 million annually in state money into cleaning up acid mine drainage.

Already, the state had invested $65 million of its own money in abandoned mine cleanups since 2000.

Pennsylvania leaders also want the federal government to start putting more of its money into cleaning up their state's coalfields.

"No other state has as much at stake in this debate," said J. Scott Roberts, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

'How did you guys do that?' In January 2000, Roderick Fletcher was attending his first meeting of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs. Fletcher had just been named director of AML for the Pennsylvania DEP. People kept asking Fletcher about this $3.6 billion in new projects his state added to the AML inventory.

"Other states got wind of this - the reaction was 'How did you guys do that? We didn't know we were allowed to do that,'" Fletcher recalled.

Fletcher didn't know what they were talking about. When he got back to Harrisburg, Fletcher asked his staff. They showed him the paperwork: Eighteen broad projects for watershed-wide cleanups of rivers and streams polluted by acid mine drainage.

One project alone, cleanup of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, accounted for half of the $3.6 billion estimated price tag.

The West Branch drains nearly 3,000 square miles. Putting it on the AML inventory is like West Virginia adding all of Boone, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties to the cleanup list.

When Fletcher asked his staff how Pennsylvania could add such a large area to the AML inventory, they pointed to Uram's new definition of "general welfare." "There wasn't anything sinister about this," Fletcher said. "My mantra is that it really isn't an issue." Blaming OSM But to some other states, it certainly was an issue.

"The word was out," said Mike Kastl, AML program director for the state of Oklahoma's Conservation Commission. "Everybody noticed." A 20-year veteran of the AML program, Kastl helped write OSM's original cleanup guidelines in the early 1980s. He's concerned that artificial inflations of the AML inventory by states like Pennsylvania will hurt the ability of other states like his to get the AML money they need.

"When we had that dump, it was just too much at one time," Kastl. "We need flexibility, but we need to be careful about adding two or three billion dollars all at once." But, Kastl says, "You can't blame Pennsylvania. They just saw an opportunity and jumped on it.

"The blame needs to be put on Bob Uram," he said. "It's an OSM decision that opened this whole thing up, and it was wrong." OSM, though, didn't even notice what Pennsylvania did.

"I can find no record of any field office response or comment on it anywhere," said Fred Sherfy, who monitors the Pennsylvania AML program for OSM's Harrisburg field office.

Jarrett, the OSM director, has said that the Pennsylvania sites "are listed consistent with long-standing OSM policy on the inventory." Jarrett, a former coal company official, was deputy secretary for mineral resources at Pennsylvania's DEP before he became OSM director.

In an interview, Jarrett said that he was not involved in the addition of the $3.6 billion in new AML sites. "I didn't even know about that until I got to Washington," he said.

'A disaster' for West Virginia?

Among House members, Rahall is considered a major voice for strong environmental protections. But, his abandoned mine reclamation bill has drawn sharp criticism from some conservation groups.

In their legislation, Rahall and Cubin propose to eliminate the "general welfare" clause from the AML priority list. Rahall has proposed such a move for several years, but has not been successful.

The Rahall-Cubin bill would also require the OSM to review all sites added to the AML inventory since December 1998. Any that were wrongly added, including the Pennsylvania sites, would be removed.

Deb Simko, spokeswoman for the Greensburg-based Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, is furious over the proposal.

"That will be a disaster for Pennsylvania and West Virginia," Simko said. "I really do not understand why Mr. Rahall is not concerned with West Virginia." Ironically, Pennsylvania may have gotten the idea for its $3.6 billion AML inventory addition from West Virginia. In 1987, West Virginia added the entire Blackwater River to its cleanup list.

State officials said it would cost nearly $50 million to clean up acid mine drainage in the 90,000-acre watershed, state records show.

In a 1988 General Accounting Office report, Pennsylvania and Kentucky officials complained about the West Virginia addition. The other states, GAO said, felt that West Virginia did not provide "site-specific data" to support the listing.

By the time Uram changed the rules in 1994, West Virginia had dropped the watershed-wide cleanup for a $1 million project. Today, the liming station outside Davis keeps the Blackwater clean and supporting aquatic life.

"That was a bang-for-the-buck kind of strategy," said Charlie Miller, who runs West Virginia's AML program at the state Department of Environmental Protection. "It established a trout fishery all the way down through the Blackwater gorge." David C. Callaghan, who was DEP director when the Blackwater project was done, said the state did several other major reclamation jobs in the watershed. In all, he said, they probably cost $20 million.

Saving the Cheat West Virginia environmental groups are not very vocal about it, but some of them are worried about Rahall's bill as well. Keith Pitzer, director of the Friends of the Cheat, wonders how the bill would affect his group's efforts to clean up the acid mine drainage that plagues their watershed.

"If you want to talk quality of life, and what will serve the community, do you want to live next to orange streams, or next to a fishable one?" Pitzer said.

With money from the AML program, Pitzer and his group have made major strides toward bringing the Cheat back to life. They've worked mostly through the Appalachian Clean Streams program.

Uram started the program in 1994, as part of his efforts to focus more AML money on acid mine drainage.

Clean Streams gives AML money to local citizens groups that put together acid mine drainage cleanup projects. The OSM also performs some Clean Streams projects on its own.

Since it started, Clean Streams has funded 98 projects in 11 states, according to the OSM's latest annual report. In each of the last two years, the OSM has awarded about $7 million in Clean Streams grants.

Advocates of spending more AML money say the program's current budget is a drop in the bucket, compared to the high cost of long-term pollution treatment.

But David Finkenbinder, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, says that programs like Clean Streams "operate as an exit ramp to divert funds away from the high-priority inventory." During a House committee hearing in March, Rahall rattled off all of the ways the AML program tries to address acid mine drainage and other environmental damage: s States can set aside part of their AML money for future acid mine drainage treatment s They can get Clean Streams funding to help local groups with acid mine drainage projects s States can fund low-priority projects before they finish health-and-safety cleanups s Separate AML money is provided to build new drinking water systems.

Rahall said his proposal would not eliminate these programs, and that he is simply trying to refocus other AML spending on its original goal.

"Could we please leave some money to address the open pits that swallow our teenagers, to mitigate landslides that threaten grandma's house, and to combat subsidence that may engulf an entire community?" Rahall asked. "I mean, is that asking too much?" To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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