Friday, September 14, 2007

Ignore the cheap shot, there are funds to close up old mines

Last week, Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts became an advocate for more funding for closing abandoned mines in Arizona. Her solution? Stop funding scientific research projects such as “Enhancing Teaching Effectiveness in Undergraduate Geology Education Through the Use of Pen-Tablet Computers” and “A Resource for Assembling the Timescale of Life.”Science has long been an easy target for public figures who are looking to grandstand. Most people won’t understand what the project is about, let alone what the relevance to society may be. Generally, scientists are ineffective public communicators, so there is little risk in going after us.

We certainly could divert all of the state’s scientific research funding of $35 million to closing abandoned mines. No doubt there are many other state programs that someone would be happy to shut down as well. But there may be more responsible and effective solutions for fixing the abandoned mine problem.

The U.S. General Accounting Office in 1996 reported ( that there is no comprehensive inventory of abandoned mines on federal lands, nor private and state lands. They reference a 1991 study that estimated a cost of $11 billion to reclaim existing abandoned mine lands but didn’t lay out the details of how they came to that figure.

Right now, over $1.8 billion sits in the federal government’s Abandoned Mine Lands fund in the Office of Surface Mining (as reported in 7-06, the latest figure posted). Unfortunately, the money is dedicated to reclaiming coal mines, not hard rock mining sites such as predominate in Arizona. Since 1977, the U.S. has collected over $7.4 billion from coal company production, and spent $5. 4 billion, leaving 24% of the money socked away in the treasury. The feds are using the funds as an accounting technique to help balance the budget, so they are reluctant to spend the money on the purpose it was collected.

Another problem is that the coal-producing states fight to make sure the monies are used only for reclaiming abandoned coal properties or go to coal-producing states, and not to hard rock mines or states. Thus, we have a situation like Wyoming that produces a large part of the nation’s coal, getting a comparable return of the abandoned mine fees. However, all the abandoned mines in that state have been reclaimed, leaving the cash flow to be used for such things as new buildings on the University of Wyoming campus and a variety of other projects that can be justified as mining-related.

[above right: OSM map of coal mines eligible for Abandoned Mine Lands funds. Hard rock mines such as are common in Arizona are not eligible]

Opening up the federal abandoned mine lands fund to fixing all types of mines is an obvious solution. However, such an effort will create a political firestorm, as it has when it's been suggested in the past. Coal companies can raise a valid point as to why they should be taxed to pay for problems in another industry. But to the parents of a child that died from falling into an open mine shaft, does it make a difference whether the mine produced coal or gold?

From the OSM website:

The Surface Mining Law provides for the restoration of lands mined and abandoned or left inadequately restored before August 3, 1977. Production fees of 35 cents per ton of surface mined coal, 15 cents per ton of coal mined underground and 10 cents per ton of lignite are collected from coal producers at all active coal mining operations. The fees are deposited in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund, which is used to pay the reclamation costs of abandoned mine land projects. The fund consists of fees, contributions, late payment interest, penalties, administrative charges, and interest earned on investment of the fund's principal. From January 30, 1978, when the first fees were paid, through September 30, 2005, the fund has collected $7,445,240,695.16 and fund appropriations totaled $ 5,748,548,370.03

No comments:

Post a Comment