WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush signed legislation Wednesday that gives billions of dollars to coal-producing states to clean up hazardous abandoned coal mines and pay for health care for retired miners.

His signature ends a long fight that has pitted coal-producing states against each other over the best use of funds collected for the nation’s coal mine reclamation program.

Coal-producing states will get an estimated $6.3 billion for abandoned mine cleanup and another $1.6 billion to pay for health care for retired miners who worked for coal companies that no longer exist, according to the federal Office of Surface Mining. The money will be distributed from 2007 to 2025.

The bill, part of a sweeping tax bill, renews the abandoned mines land reclamation program that was created in 1977.

Particularly in eastern coalfields, toxins from abandoned mines pollute streams.

The unstable land from the abandoned mines has been blamed for fatal accidents by ATV riders and hikers – in Pennsylvania 24 deaths were reported last year on abandoned mine land. Mines sometimes catch fire and burn for years.

The program is based on a per-ton fee that coal companies pay into a fund. The bill makes spending for the reclamation program mandatory, which means it would not be controlled through the annual congressional appropriations process.

“This will provide us long term stability and continuity,” said Ben Owens, a spokesman for the Office of Surface Mining, which oversees mine reclamation.

Since the program’s creation, much of the nation’s mining has shifted from states in the east like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky to those in the west, like Wyoming.

The western states have not struggled as much with abandoned mine restoration issues because much of the mining has been done with more modern techniques.

The historic coal mining states have complained that Wyoming uses its abandoned mine land fund for public works. The western states, in turn, have complained of bearing the burden of funding the program.

The legislation signed Wednesday lowers the fees paid into the program and modifies the formula so that historic coal mining states with the more serious problems get a higher stake of the money.

It was supported by a coalition of the coal industry, coalfield communities, environmental conservation organizations, sportsmen and mine workers, according to a joint statement from Pennsylvania Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter.



On the Net: Office of Surface Mining: http://www.osmre.gov/

AP-ES-12-20-06 1356EST


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