Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program
The Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Reclamation Program uses fees paid by present-day coal mining companies to reclaim coal mines abandoned before 1977. This makes these areas safer for people and the environment. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977, as amended, created this program. Provisions of the act set standards for today's coal companies as they reclaim past mining areas while they mine others and post bonds to cover the cost if unable to reclaim current coal mines.
Abandoned mine land areas
Abandoned mines pose risks to people and the environment. They can contaminate ground water, emit toxic waste, and cause injury when unsteady infrastructures collapse.
Priority reclamation sites
State and tribal AML programs rank abandoned mine land problems on a priority scale of 1 to 3 as defined by federal law. Mine pollution problems ranked 1 and 2 are high priority and are addressed first, with a few exceptions.
- Priority 1: Protection of public health, safety, and property from extreme danger of adverse effects of coal mining practices pre-1977, including restoration of land, water, and the environment
- Priority 2: Protection of public health and safety from adverse effects of coal mining practices pre-1977, including restoration of land, water, and the environment
- Priority 3: Restoration of land and water resources and the environment previously degraded by adverse effects of coal mining practices pre-1977
Areas undergoing or requiring reclamation
The federal AML Reclamation Program distributes funds for reclamation to the state and tribal AML programs with remaining Priority 1 and 2 sites.
State and tribal AML programs use funds to prepare for reclamation projects, including:
- permitting processes
- environmental assessments
- site surveys
- development of reclamation plans
After completing project preparation, funds are used for construction to reclaim the site.
Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) is required to report measurable goals to Congress. One of their key measures is the number of abandoned mine land acres reclaimed.
Revenue and disbursements
Fees paid by coal mine operators fund the AML Reclamation Program. Companies pay a per-ton fee to OSMRE.
Since passage of the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, distribution of AML grants are mandatory. Prior to 2006, distribution was subject to Congress' annual appropriations process.
The amount states and tribes receive each year in annual payments varies depending on the fees collected during the previous fiscal year (i.e., this fiscal year's fees fund next fiscal year's grants).
The statute requires the government to distribute AML Reclamation Program funds collected during the previous fiscal year as follows:
- State and tribal share: Non-certified states receive 50% of the AML revenue originating from coal production in their states. This accounts for 50% of overall distribution of AML fees in a given year. Certified states receive amounts equal to their respective share grant totals sourced from the Treasury's General Fund.
- Historic coal share: 30% of overall AML fees go toward Historic Coal Grants for non-certified states. OSMRE allocates Historic Coal grants based on each state's percentage of coal tonnage produced prior to 1977. Congress created Historic Coal grants so that states with large numbers of abandoned mines, but little current coal production, would not be left without funds to reclaim them.
- Federal expense share (including minimum program make-up grants): 20% of AML fees goes toward federal expenditures. These funds must first be used to fund Minimum Program Make-Up grants to non-certified states. These ensure that non-certified states receive at least $3 million a year or the amount necessary to reclaim their remaining high priority AML areas, whichever is lower. OSMRE uses the remaining amount to fund operations, emergency projects, and other efforts.
Review OSMRE grant distribution reports to track annual state grants.
State and tribal spending
State and tribal AML programs use funds to prepare for reclamation through an extensive permitting process, environmental assessments, site surveys, and the development of reclamation plans. Generally, states and tribes must reclaim all Priority 1 and 2 coal sites before using AML funds on Priority 3 coal sites, but several exceptions exist.
In addition to scheduled reclamation projects, states and tribes can use AML funds for related efforts, such as:
- covering the costs of administering and enforcing their AML programs
- funding emergency AML reclamation projects
- setting aside annual funds (up to 30%) for projects related to acid mine drainage
OSMRE also maintains a list of contacts for states, Indian tribes, and OSMRE offices.
When a state or tribe has reclaimed high priority coal AML areas, they may be eligible for "certification." Once certified, the source of their funds from OSMRE changes; instead of receiving AML grants, they receive funds from the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury. These funds can be used for other purposes, including reclaiming abandoned hardrock mine sites. A certified state or tribe may still have abandoned coal mine areas to reclaim.
You can track certified states and tribes by reviewing the annual AML grant distributions.
The AML fund
Prior to 2006, companies often paid more money into the AML fund each year than Congress chose to appropriate. A large, unspent balance grew over time. In 1990, Congress authorized the federal government to invest the unspent balance in U.S. Treasury Securities. Interest from AML fees pays for a portion of the costs for health care plans for the United Mine Workers of America.
By 2007, the state and tribal share of the unspent balance had reached $1.34 billion.
Congress resolved to pay states' and tribes' unspent balance out in the form of "Prior Balance Replacement Grants," which pay states and tribes 50% of what companies operating in their jurisdictions paid into the AML Fund from 2008–2014. Payments were made over 7 years in equal, annual installments.
OSMRE paid states and tribes a collective total of $1.3 billion in roughly equal installments over the course of seven years. This money did not come directly from the AML Fund, but was sourced directly from the Treasury's General Fund.
The Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation (OSMRE) within the U.S. Department of the Interior provides regular updates regarding collections and distributions and annually publishes the fund’s current status.