Testimony of TU President Charles Gauvin to Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund
Vice President, Government Affairs
3/10/2004 -- Washington -- Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear today to give you the views of Trout Unlimited (TU) on two bills before the Committee, S. 2086 and S. 2049, both of which are designed to reauthorize and amend the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund (AML Fund) created by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). TU commends the Committee for holding the hearing and moving forward on reauthorizing this important program, which is set to expire at the end of Fiscal Year 2004.
TU is the nation's largest coldwater fisheries conservation group dedicated to the protection and restoration of our nation's trout and salmon resources, and the watersheds that sustain those resources. TU has over 130,000 members in 450 chapters in 38 states. Our members generally are trout and salmon anglers who give back to the resources they love by voluntarily contributing substantial amounts of their personal time and resources to fisheries habitat protection and restoration efforts. The average TU chapter donates 1,000 hours of volunteer time on an annual basis.
We are not experts in the intricacies of the AML Fund, however, we are experts in watershed restoration. In the past seven years, TU has worked with a wide variety of Federal, state, and local partners to restore watersheds degraded by abandoned mines and other past management practices. These efforts have taken place in many states including New York, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Vermont. Given our experience, one point is crystal clear: reauthorization of, and increased funding for, the AML Fund will provide additional money and resources for watershed restoration.
Passed in 1977, SMCRA gives the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) authority to regulate coal mining and to collect fees from coal companies to create the AML Fund. The funds are used by the states and OSM to reclaim coal mining sites that were deserted before the law was enacted in 1977. The law protects our Nation's resources by improving the health of its watersheds and landscapes that are affected by current and past mining practices. Completed reclamation projects conducted under the law have improved the quality of tens of thousands of lives, restored water quality, and improved fishing and hunting.
Reauthorization of the AML Fund is about fulfilling a promise made to protect Americans living in the coal fields from serious safety and environmental hazards. Secretary Norton said it well recently when she said that reauthorizing the AML Fund is about "finishing the job." After implementing the program for 26 years, an estimated 7,000 mine sites remain unreclaimed. According to OSM, about 3.5 million people live less than one mile from abandoned coal mines. Unreclaimed high walls, burning slag piles, and gaping holes in the ground are some of the pressing hazards that have been, and should remain, the highest priorities of the program.
In addressing reclamation of abandoned coal mines, ecological restoration should not be pitted against public health. They are largely overlapping. Both improve the quality of life and both improve the health of public watersheds. TU and its members know about water and watersheds, and we are here today because too many of the nation's streams run orange because of pollution from abandoned coal mines. The states and the OSM estimate that thousands of miles of Appalachian mountain streams are damaged by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. It is one of the nation's largest remaining water quality problems.
The good news is that, although the problem is vast, practical solutions exist to fix it. TU, OSM and states are working together throughout the eastern mountain region to address acid mine drainage problems. The job is far from finished. We urge the Committee and the sponsors of the bills to move expeditiously to enact the reauthorization, and to use the reauthorization legislation to increase funding for restoration of watersheds damaged by pollution from abandoned coal mines.
Acid drainage flowing from abandoned coal mines has left some streams devoid of any life. EPA has singled out drainage from abandoned coal mines as the number one water quality problem in the Appalachian mountain region of the eastern U.S. Much of the problem originated years ago from coal production that helped build America and fueled our war efforts during World War I and II.
Acid drainage is water containing acidity, iron, manganese, aluminum, and other metals. It is caused by exposing coal and bedrock high in pyrite (iron sulfide) to oxygen and moisture as a result of surface or underground mining operations. If produced in sufficient quantity, iron hydroxide and sulfuric acid, a result of chemical and biological reaction, may contaminate surface and ground water.
According to EPA, OSM and state water quality agencies, thousands of miles of streams are badly polluted with acid drainage. Acid drainage problems exist in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia. The worst, most extensive pollution is from decades-old abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In an effort to demonstrate how practical solutions could be applied to an otherwise daunting task, TU, OSM, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and private funders have spent more than $2 million to date cleaning up acid mine drainage pollution in the lower part of the Kettle Creek watershed in north-central Pennsylvania. I'll discuss our progress momentarily, but this is just one part of one very important watershed in the state. We estimate the need for, and are seeking, an additional $8 million to finish the acid mine drainage cleanup job on Kettle Creek.
Just downstream, TU and others are now looking at the larger watershed into which Kettle Creek flows, the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, possibly the most polluted large river in America. Approximately 150 miles of the mainstem and more than 500 miles of coldwater tributaries have been rendered essentially lifeless due to toxic concentrations of metals and acidity from acid mine drainage, much of which is from abandoned mines. Overall, 72 percent of the 6,992 square-mile West Branch basin is affected by acid mine drainage -- the source for 96 percent of the pollution in the West Branch watershed.
The scope of the problem in the West Branch is daunting: removing the high concentrations of toxic metals and neutralizing the pH of the acid mine drainage polluted water could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, successful restoration of the West Branch will yield enormous economic and human health benefits that in turn will translate into a better way of life for the local communities. In addition, the potential for fishery restoration is phenomenal. Each stream in the watershed has been assessed as a potential high quality coldwater fishery or exceptional value stream. The headwaters of most streams above the acid mine drainage impaired areas are classified by the state as Class A wild trout fisheries. In short, on the West Branch, as in many other places, the technology to fix the problem is available. States, communities and conservation groups have the will. All we need is more funding.
The AML Fund currently provides some limited but extremely useful funds for cleaning up the polluted water. More funding is needed.
TU is familiar with two sources that receive moneys from the AML Fund for cleaning up abandoned mine pollution:
o OSM's Clean Streams Initiative, funded at $10 million in FY 2004 from the Federal share of the AML Fund, and
o Decisions made by individual states to allocate some of the funding they receive from the AML Fund to finance cleanup programs.
Started in 1994 with only four million dollars, the purpose of the Clean Streams Initiative is to facilitate and coordinate citizen groups, university researchers, the coal industry, corporations, the conservation organizations, and local, state, and federal government agencies that are involved in cleaning up streams polluted by acid drainage.
The science and the effectiveness of the cleanups provided by this funding are improving every year. Methods of water treatment used to eliminate acid drainage from abandoned underground mines can be grouped into two types. The most common method is chemical treatment. Called active treatment because it requires constant maintenance, this method usually involves neutralizing acid-polluted water with hydrated lime or crushed limestone. This treatment reduces acidity and significantly decreases iron and other metals. However, it is expensive to construct and operate and is considered a temporary measure because the acid drainage problem has not been permanently eliminated.
The second treatment method is called biological, or passive control. This technology involves the construction of a treatment system that is permanent and requires little or no maintenance. Passive control measures involve the use of anoxic drains, limestone rock channels, alkaline recharge of ground water, and diversion of drainage through man-made wetlands or other settling structures. Passive treatment systems are relatively inexpensive to construct and have been very successful on small discharges of acid drainage, such as those on the Kettle Creek watershed.
TU has worked with state agencies and OSM on cleanup projects in five eastern states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Highlights include the following:
Kettle Creek, Pennsylvania
The AML Fund has provided several hundred thousand dollars to restore Kettle Creek. TU and its partners have made significant progress during the past five years in efforts to abate acid mine drainage in the lower Kettle Creek watershed. Our Lower Kettle Creek Restoration Plan provides the overall blueprint that guides the assessment and remediation activities, and this plan is being supplemented with data from airborne remote sensing surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory. These surveys utilized thermal infrared and helicopter-mounted electromagnetic technologies to identify the acid mine drainage problems and to target key areas for remediation work.
Two on-the-ground projects have already been completed as a direct result of the Lower Kettle Creek Restoration Plan and several more are currently under way. The ultimate goal of our project work is to reclaim17 miles of Kettle trout stream. The completed projects will restore native brook trout populations, create a new recreational fishery, expand the local economy that depends on outdoor recreation and tourism, improve water quality in local communities, and contribute to the overall restoration of the West Branch Susquehanna as it flows downstream to the Chesapeake Bay.
Rock Creek, Kentucky
In Kentucky, TU is working with OSM, state water and fisheries agencies, and the U.S. Forest Service to restore Rock Creek in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Although parts of the creek are healthy and provide fine trout fishing, some stretches are badly damaged by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. TU and its partner agencies are removing coal mine refuse from the banks of one stretch of the creek, and are implementing passive liming and treatment of other acid-impaired stretches, in a large-scale effort to restore this key tributary of the Cumberland River.
Coal Creek, Tennessee
In east Tennessee, TU's Clinch River chapter is working hand-in-glove with the community of Briceville to clean up acid mine drainage in Coal Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River. After addressing chronic flooding and stream bank erosion problems that plagued the community for decades, the chapter is turning its attention toward the creation of four new wetlands near abandoned mine sites. The wetlands will filter out the majority of pollutants, including acid and heavy metals, such as iron, which currently pollute Coal Creek. But in order to initiate construction, our local volunteers are depending upon funding from the Clean Streams Initiative not only to purchase the necessary materials, but also to imbue the owners of abandoned mines with the trust that our ample will to do good work is matched by the means to carry it out.
The "general welfare" priority currently in SMCRA allows watershed clean up to occur and it must be retained, as S. 2049 does, but S. 2086 does not.
Section 4 of S. 2086 would eliminate the general welfare provision of both Priority 1 and Priority 2. As I have stated, TU has no intention of advocating any changes in the public health and safety priorities of the existing Reclamation Fund law. However, the large need for cleaning up water pollution caused by abandoned coal mines, and the great benefits to communities and states derived there from, leads TU to be a strong advocate of retaining the priorities in current law. We urge the Committee to do so. General welfare projects in Priority 1 and Priority 2 should continue to be funded.
Fulfill the promise of SMCRA by making the AML Fund off-budget and increasing funding for the Clean Streams Initiative: the sooner the reclamation work is funded, the sooner it is finished.
If we all agree that our goal is to "finish the job," then let's get on with it. Currently, more than $6 billion is needed to fix high priority public health hazards associated with abandoned coal mines. To clean up water and watersheds, a total of $15 billion is needed. Despite this need, more than $1.5 billion that has been collected remains unspent. Clearly, a reauthorized AML Fund must keep the funding tap open. Therefore, TU encourages the Committee to make the AML Fund off-budget and not subject to the annual appropriations process.
The fee reduction in both bills is inappropriate given the overarching objective of putting money on the ground to complete projects. Both bills phase in substantial reductions in fees collected from coal mining companies over the life of the new authorization. In light of existing funding needs, we see no reason why the fee reduction is appropriate. We urge the Committee to retain the current fee structure. TU believes the current fee structure will be more palatable to companies if they are assured that all of the fees are expended on the purposes set forth in SMCRA as would be achieved by making the fund off-budget.
Finally, we urge the Committee to dedicate $25 million annually from the off-budget Reclamation Fund to the Clean Streams Initiative. We urge the Committee to support increasing the Clean Streams Initiative funding from its current level of $10 million up to $25 million over the course of the 15 year authorization.
Consider authorizing a similar reclamation fund for cleaning up abandoned hardrock mine pollution in the western U.S.
Although a few western states, such as Wyoming, use some of their AML Fund allocations for non-coal mine abandoned hardrock sites, the need for restoration of these sites far outstrips the available resources. In the West, it is not a matter of finishing the job of cleaning up abandoned hardrock mining sites, it is imperative to get started. Indeed, according to EPA, abandoned mines affect the health of 40% of western headwater streams. This pollution threatens coldwater fisheries, contaminates drinking water for millions living downstream, and jeopardizes local economies. We urge the Committee to take a serious look at the problem and to start developing a legislative solution to establish a complimentary or corollary fund for cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines.
Extend the authorization to 25 years rather than the 15 year extensions in the current bills.
Everyone agrees that the minimum amount of time needed to finish the job is 25 years. As such, TU supports extending the reauthorization to 25 years rather than the 15 years currently provided by both bills.
The coal fields have sustained us through some of our greatest national challenges, and now it is time to give back to those lands, and those who live on them, to see that they are restored.
Senators Thomas and Specter, Representatives Peterson, Sherwood, Cubin and Rahall have demonstrated good leadership by introducing bills to reauthorize this invaluable source of money. Also, we appreciate the strong role that Secretary Norton and the Department of the Interior have played in proposing a bill, introduced by Senator Specter and Representative Peterson, as well as the substantial funding increase for FY 2005 proposed by the Bush Administration from the Reclamation Fund. But the legislative road is long, and the legislative season is short. TU pledges to work with the Committee to help craft appropriate amendments and move a bill to the Senate floor expeditiously. We owe it the communities of the coal fields to finish the job.