Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality will receive an extra $91 million this year from the Interior Department to clean up historic coal mining in the state.
Abandoned Mine Land funds are a significant part of the department’s expected budget, but for the next two years, the Interior is returning additional money owed from the years 2009 through 2011.
The funds come from a federal tax on coal production that flows into a mineral trust fund. It is doled out every year to coal states to serve reclamation efforts. Wyoming, the largest single coal producer in the country, accounted for 55 percent of the collected federal funds last year, said Alan Edwards, administrator of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Abandoned Mine Land division.
The state will use the extra $91 million to address what remains of a long history of underground coal mining, which officials continue to discover in unlikely places, Edwards said.
The $91 million boon is separate from the repayment of withheld Abandoned Mine Lands funds in previous years.
A political controversy over how states like Wyoming spent their abandoned mine land dollars led to national criticism that the states weren’t using the funds for cleanup. In 2012, the money was withheld by Congress.
After a political fight, in which Wyoming’s delegation played a significant role, the funds were returned in 2015. Wyoming received a series of lump sums.
As a state that has been certified by the federal government for meeting its historic coal cleanup requirements, Wyoming had latitude on how to prioritize spending of that money, state officials maintain.
However, the state has received criticism for its use of the Abandoned Mine Land money as recently as last spring. A report from the Interior Department’s Inspector General said federal regulators had failed to ensure that states were making coal reclamation top priority, noting Wyoming’s choice to spend money on non-coal projects.
Environmental groups in Wyoming have also criticized the state’s choices for reclamation projects.
A continuing challenge
The extra funding in the next two years comes with restrictions on how the environmental department can spend it. The first priority is abandoned coal mine cleanup. The second use of funding could be non-coal reclamation. If the first two priorities are met, the Department of Environmental Quality could spend the money on public facilities in areas affected by historic coal mining.
Wyoming is nowhere near finished addressing older mining, from the many shafts that lie beneath the city of Rock Springs, to surprise underground mine sites discovered around the state, said Edwards from the Department of Environmental Quality. A recent void, for example, was found 10 feet beneath the highway that flows through Glenrock.
“We’ve got a really good handle on (historic mining in Wyoming),” he said. “But one of the things that we’ve found is that … we are going to have features that show up and come to our attention that we currently don’t know about.”
The extra money from the Interior this year has not been allocated to specific projects yet, he said. But it will likely be used for continued work in Rock Springs, as well as in an effort to stabilize voids found in places like Evanston.
AML money accounts for significant portion of dollars that the Department of Environmental Quality budgets each year. According to the budget bill currently under debate in the Wyoming Legislature, Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation dollars accounted for 59 percent of the department’s budget.
Aside from the repayment amounts Wyoming is benefiting from this year, the Abandoned Mine Land income can fluctuate depending on how strong coal production is.
Once a steady improvement year by year, coal production has declined in Wyoming since the coal bust of 2015.