(Bloomberg) — Wyoming stands to receive hundreds of
millions of dollars in federal payments intended for mine
reclamation over the next decade under a little-noticed
provision of the highway bill working its way through Congress.
The language, part of a compromise by congressional
negotiators to fund highways and transportation projects over
the next five years, would do away with a per-state cap that had
been as high as $28 million on annual payments from the
Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.
Sustained by fees on coal production, the fund is designed
to pay the costs of sealing old mine shafts and securing
potentially toxic sites, but can be redirected for other
purposes. For years, the money has automatically flowed back to
coal-producing states such as Wyoming that have already cleaned
up their worst old mines. The state has used some of its mine
money to renovate an arena and build a science building at the
University of Wyoming.
“This reiterates why Congress is held in such low esteem by
the taxpayers,” said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens
Against Government Waste. “To them, it’s business as usual; to
them, the Republicans can’t be as fiscally responsible as people
The $305 billion highway bill, which is set for a House
vote later this week, would hand Wyoming $241.9 million to make
up for lost payments while the cap was in place and get rid of
the ceiling going forward — changes that could translate to an
extra $595 million for the state over the next decade. States
that have cleaned up their abandoned mines would have carte
blanche to spend it.
It makes no sense “to keep paying for mines that are
already cleaned up,” Schatz said. Instead, “you could use that
money for something government did effectively, or simply spend
less and let taxpayers keep all that money,” he said. “They
didn’t need to do this; there’s no emergency. There’s no
Good-government advocates say the change shouldn’t have
quietly caught a ride on the unrelated highway bill. It’s a
reversal of the scenario that played out three years ago, when
an annual payment cap was first imposed by a provision in the
2012 transportation bill.
“It’s kind of ironic that what they’re undoing in the
transportation bill is what they did in the transportation bill
three years ago,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers
for Common Sense in Washington. “It wasn’t good policy to do it
that way then and it’s not good policy now.”
Wyoming gets the biggest jackpot because it is the nation’s
No. 1 coal producer, responsible for about 40 percent of U.S.
production. But West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and other
states also get payouts from the fund tied to the coal
production within their borders. The fund also provides money to
states with abandoned mines in need of cleanup — even those
with scant to no coal production today.
The Obama administration has implored Congress to halt the
mandatory payments to Louisiana, Montana, Texas and Wyoming
because they have already completed major coal reclamation
projects. Congress responded in 2012 by capping the annual
payouts to states the past two years. Only Wyoming hit the
Wyoming’s Congressional delegation has pushed for the
elimination of the cap, though it hasn’t taken credit for the
language in the highway bill. Spokesmen for Senator John
Barrasso and his fellow Republicans from Wyoming, Senator Mike
Enzi and Representative Cynthia Lummis, didn’t respond to
requests for comment. A spokesman for the National Mining
Association also didn’t respond.
Environmentalists said boosting payments to coal-producing
states — with no strings attached on the final spending —
would encourage coal production at a time when concerns about
climate change should be tamping down the activity.
“We’re working to keep coal in the ground, and if there is
this huge fund to reclaim areas that have been damaged by
mining, it is an incentive for states to keep mining it,” said
Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club,
an environmental group.
Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, Rio Tinto and other companies
pulled 387.9 million short tons of coal out of Wyoming in 2013,
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The No.
2 producer was West Virginia, with 115.9 million short tons,
followed by Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at email@example.com