Send federal coal tax where it's needed

Abandoned mines, like this one near Drakesboro in Western Kentucky, are candidates for cleanup with money going to states that no longer need it.
Abandoned mines, like this one near Drakesboro in Western Kentucky, are candidates for cleanup with money going to states that no longer need it.

Millions of dollars from a tax on the coal industry that is supposed to go to replace ruined drinking water or repair landslides and other damage from abandoned mines is instead being used to renovate a basketball arena in Wyoming.

"States Mine Federal Funds Long After Need Is Gone" was the headline on an article last week in The Wall Street Journal, which quoted Wyoming Republicans and Democrats who said their state is entitled to the biggest share of the Abandoned Mine Lands fund because it produces the most coal.

"Wyoming ought to get to do with the money what they want to do," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming.

Enzi's line of reasoning has one giant flaw: Congress enacted the tax on each ton of coal to clean up messes left by the coal industry before 1982.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 made it much harder for the industry to walk away from environmental damage and tunnels and shafts where unsuspecting people still die.

Wyoming, which became the leading coal producer in the past three decades, long ago certified that it had cleaned up all of its eligible abandoned mine sites.

It is now spending proceeds from the tax to build highways, schools and hospitals — things that have nothing to do with coal mining.

Wyoming last month appropriated $10 million in Abandoned Mine Lands money to renovate the basketball arena at the University of Wyoming.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs, reclamation and water replacement are needed in Kentucky and other states to fix damage from pre-1982 coal mining.

According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, an agency of the Interior Department, the unfunded inventory of abandoned mine land sites total:

■ $343 million in Kentucky

■ $873 million in West Virginia

■ $1.6 billion in Pennsylvania

■ $102 million in Virginia

■ $226 million in Kansas

■ $121 million in Missouri.

Kentucky, with more than $300 million in need, can expect to get about $31 million a year from the tax on the coal industry, while Wyoming, with no need, is receiving about $150 million a year.

The solution is obvious: Allocate the money based on need, not on coal production.

The Obama administration has repeatedly proposed doing this, most recently in February. But Congress has shown little interest.

The administration also wants to use part of the tax on coal to trim the federal deficit. That would not be fair. Not when some people in Appalachia are still doing without decent water because of historic damage by the coal industry.

This is a fair tax best levied at the federal level. Many companies and owners that left waste ponds full of bright orange water and unstable high walls morphed into new corporations

The industry should pay to clean up its past — and the money should go where it's needed most.