Wyoming to Get Windfall From Item Tucked Into Highway Bill

  • Provision would eliminate cap on annual payments to states
  • States that have cleaned up mines can spend funds elsewhere

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 would like.”

Highway Bill

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 excuse."

Unrelated Bill

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.

Mandatory Payments

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 limit.

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.

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