TETON VILLAGE – More than $400 million in Wyoming mine reclamation projects haven’t yet been funded, a state administrator told the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority on Thursday.
But the Abandoned Mine Lands program will provide only $150 million to Wyoming over the next 10 years, said Alan Edwards, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Abandoned Mine Lands Division. The state received about that amount in its last payment alone.
Congress reduced AML funding in September when it passed a one-sentence amendment to a transportation bill limiting every state’s annual allotment to a $15 million maximum.
“It’s one sentence,” Edwards told the Infrastructure Authority board of directors and other industry representatives at a board meeting in Teton Village. “But it has very far-reaching implications.”
The state will lose $718 million in projected mine lands funding over the next decade, representing about an 83 percent cut.
The cut puts the Wyoming program in a difficult place, with $429 million in planned projects yet to receive funding. Edwards said Thursday there isn’t enough money left to do it all.
The Abandoned Mine Lands program has for years provided more funding for Wyoming than for any other state.
The program is funded by a per-ton tax levied on coal producers. The federal government traditionally keeps half the revenue to run the program and gives the other half back to the state. Because Wyoming typically produces more coal than any state, it gets the most funding back.
Edwards said the producers in the state have contributed $2.9 billion to the program since 1977, about 35 percent of all money collected nationwide.
And with Eastern coal production on the decline and Wyoming production increasing, those numbers have only skewed further. Wyoming producers paid $137 million last year, about 52 percent of the national total.
Wyoming was the only state to receive more than $15 million from the program in 2011.
The program was created 35 years ago to finance cleanup efforts at mining sites around the country. Much of Wyoming’s funding has been used to reclaim coal, uranium, silver and copper mines. The state has cleaned up about 24,000 acres since then.
Some have criticized the state’s use of the fund in recent years. About $82 million of fiscal year 2012’s $150 million allotment went to efforts that weren’t traditional reclamation projects, including a Gillette water project and road work.
But Edwards said the critics fail to understand the fund’s purpose and how the state actually uses the money.
Wyoming AML funding is split into two funds — one for traditional reclamation, another to be used at the discretion of the state Legislature, with a preference for energy-related projects.
The latter, called the “legislative prior balance,” is the result of previously promised funding from the federal government that was instead diverted to other uses. The federal government has since allocated money to each state on top of traditional funding to repay the balance.
The legislative balance is often used for water treatment plants, sewer facilities and road repairs in communities “impacted by coal development,” Edwards said. It also finances research into topics like carbon dioxide sequestration and clean energy.
Edwards said that when people understand that the purpose of the mine lands fund is about more than just cleaning up mines, they become less critical of the Legislature’s use of the money.
“I can make a clear case that, as a minimum, 92 percent of the legislative prior balance have direct energy impacts,” he said in an interview, adding that Wyoming’s research can benefit the entire country. “Everything is done in full compliance.”
Edwards added that the remaining balance of last year’s funds received — about $63 million — was used for traditional mine cleanup.
“Those funds have been, still are, and will be used for reclamation,” he said.
If Wyoming’s funding remains at only $15 million, the state could lose more than tax revenue. Abandoned mine reclamations are usually contracted to private companies, meaning those contracts — and potentially jobs and income for private industry — would either be reduced or lost completely. Each project would also have to be divided into smaller, cheaper phases, meaning each would take longer.
Edwards told the board he hasn’t given up on the fund being re-established, although he isn’t getting his hopes up.
“The [congressional] delegation and the governor have been and continue to work hard to get this turned around,” he said. “Wyoming is not going to take this lying down. In the meantime, we’re preparing the budget future we have right now.”