Environment suffers as union diverts funds to clean deserted mine sites
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The Abandoned Mine Land fund (AML) is America’s source of funding for reclaiming abandoned coal mines, especially those causing environmental damage. Financed through a tax on coal production, the AML was set up by Congress to serve that goal alone.

Since its 1977 passage, however, numerous interest groups have managed to jockey for a piece of the fund. In its deliberations over an omnibus spending package, Congress is again being given the chance to review one of largest diversions from the AML: United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) benefits packages.

To ensure the future of abandoned coal mine reclamation, Congress should put an end to AML fund misuse by discontinuing transfers to the UMWA. Instead, Congress appears ready to make the misuse permanent.

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The AML was established by Congress in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to reclaim coal mines that had been abandoned, often by long-gone companies. Just under $6 billion has been spent to date to restore nearly 800,000 acres of land and water in the United States. There’s still plenty of reclamation work to be done — the Bureau of Land Management estimates that at least 92,000 sites in need of restoration remain on BLM property in California, Nevada and Utah alone.

 

The AML’s implementation has generally been beneficial, but any large pile of government money attracts vultures, and the AML is no exception. Although misuse takes many forms, UMWA transfers are the most obvious aberration in AML spending. The diversion began in 1992 after Congress first allowed the UMWA to draw upon AML resources for their combined benefit fund (which came with a $70 million cap).

That cap was later removed. These transfers to the UMWA have been made with woefully inadequate oversight. A recent report from the Office of the Inspector General found that the government failed to verify beneficiary eligibility for fund recipients, provide documentation to support administrative expenses, or reconcile key information, among other abuses.

Protecting the health and pension benefits of retired mine workers is a noble goal, but it is not the intended goal of the AML. Its goal is environmental reclamation, and when funds are diverted to support other priorities, that can only come at the expense of the environment.

Some might be tempted to say that the AML is a good source of funds for anything the coal industry is collectively responsible for, not necessarily just environmental reclamation. By this argument, using AML dollars to fund benefits for workers who may have been physically harmed from working in the coal industry might initially appear to make sense.

This logic would not, however, justify holding the entire coal industry to account for UMWA benefits packages when, in 2015, only a meager 9 percent of domestic coal was produced by UMWA producers.

Coal miners have understandably attracted sympathy from across the political aisle, as many promised retirement and health benefits never materialized. But even if Congress unanimously agrees that UMWA benefits are a worthwhile use of government funds, there is no reason that money should come at the expense of reclamation.

The AML serves an important role in cleaning up abandoned sites left unaddressed by modern regulation. Protecting the financial security of the AML, even from nobly intentioned diversions, is critical to ensure the fund exists for future cleanup efforts. Today, that means standing against attempts to divert AML funds away from reclamation and toward politically-connected unions.

 
Arthur R. Wardle is a research associate at Strata, a public policy research center in Logan, Utah. Randy T. Simmons is a professor of political economy at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and is president of Strata.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.