Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:00 AM

Charles Gauvin


Statement of Charles Gauvin
President and CEO
Trout Unlimited
S. 1701 and S. 961
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
U.S. Senate
September 27, 2005

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear today to discuss two bills currently before the Committee, S. 1701 and S. 961, both of which would reauthorize and amend the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund (AML Fund) created by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).  TU commends you for holding the hearing in order to move forward on reauthorizing this important program, which is set to expire in 2006.

TU is a national fisheries conservation group dedicated to the protection and restoration of our nation’s trout and salmon resources, and the watersheds that sustain those resources.  TU has over 144,000 members in more than 400 chapters in 35 states.  TU members generally are trout and salmon anglers who voluntarily contribute substantial amounts of their personal time and resources to aquatic habitat protection and restoration efforts.  TU chapters invested over 460,000 hours of volunteer time into trout and salmon conservation in 2004.
 Over the past several years, TU volunteers and staff have worked with a wide variety of federal, state, and local partners to restore watersheds degraded by abandoned mines and other past management practices.  These efforts have taken place in many states including New York, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont.  Given our experience, one point is crystal clear: long term reauthorization of, and increased funding for the AML fund will provide necessary additional money and resources for watershed restoration.  Funding these efforts will have a positive impact on public health and safety as well as the environment.

 Enacted into law in 1977, SMCRA gives the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) authority to regulate coal mining and to collect fees from coal companies to create the AML Fund.  The funds are used by the states and OSM to reclaim coal mining sites.  The law protects our Nation’s people and resources by improving the health of watersheds that are affected by current and past mining practices.  Completed reclamation projects conducted as a result of the law have improved the quality of tens of thousands of people’s lives, restored water quality, and improved fishing and hunting.

 Reauthorization of the AML Fund is about fulfilling a promise made to protect Americans living in the coal fields from serious safety and environmental hazards.  After implementing the program for 27 years, an estimated 7,000 mine sites remain unreclaimed.  According to OSM, about 3.5 million people live less than one mile from
abandoned coal mines.  Addressing the public safety risks posed by unreclaimed high walls, burning slag piles, and gaping holes in the ground has been, and should remain, the highest priority of the program.

 In addressing reclamation of abandoned coal mines, ecological restoration should not be pitted against public health.  They are largely overlapping.  Both improve the quality of life and both improve the health of public watersheds.  TU and its members know about water and watersheds, and we are here today because too many of the nation’s streams run orange because of pollution from abandoned mines.  The states and OSM estimate that thousands of miles of Appalachian mountain streams are damaged by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.  It is one of the nation’s largest remaining water quality problems. 

 The work we are doing benefits more than just trout streams.  Because trout are the keystone predator in ecosystems, they are a critical barometer of water quality and overall ecological health.  Bottom line, if the water is clean enough for trout, the water is clean enough for people.

 The good news is that, although the problem is vast, practical solutions exist to fix it.  TU, OSM and states are working together to address acid mine drainage problems.  But the job is far from finished.  We urge the Committee to move expeditiously to enact the reauthorization including increased funds for restoration of watersheds damaged by pollution from abandoned coal mines.

 Acid drainage flowing from abandoned coal mines has left some streams devoid of any life.  EPA has singled out drainage from abandoned coal mines as the number one water quality problem in the Appalachian mountain region.  Much of the problem originated years ago from coal production that helped build America and fueled our war efforts during World Wars I and II.

 Acid drainage is water containing acidity, iron, manganese, aluminum, and other metals.  It is caused by exposing coal and bedrock high in pyrite (iron-sulfide) to oxygen and moisture as a result of surface or underground mining operations.  If produced in sufficient quantity, iron hydroxide and sulfuric acid may contaminate surface and groundwater.

 In an effort to demonstrate how practical solutions could be applied to an otherwise daunting task, TU, OSM, Pennsylvania, and private funders have spent more than $2 million to date cleaning up acid mine drainage pollution in the lower part of the Kettle Creek watershed in north-central Pennsylvania.  We estimate that an additional $8 million will be needed to complete the acid mine drainage cleanup on Kettle Creek.

 TU and others are now looking to replicate our success in the larger watershed into which Kettle Creek flows, the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, possibly the most polluted large river in America.  Approximately 150 miles of the mainstem and more than 500 miles of coldwater tributaries have been rendered essentially lifeless due 
to toxic concentrations of metals and acidity from acid mine drainage.  Overall, 72 percent of the 7,000 square-mile West Branch basin is affected by acid mine drainage—the source for 96 percent of the pollution in the West Branch watershed. 

 The West Branch restoration work is modeled on the methods that TU and its partners have developed on the Kettle Creek watershed and the benefits of eliminating acid mine drainage in the area are numerous.  For example, the potential for fishery restoration on all of the degraded streams is phenomenal because most of them are potential trout streams. 

Other benefits from abandoned mine restoration include increased property values and quality of life for those living in the area, improved hunting opportunities, and job creation.  Pennsylvania estimates that for every million dollars spent on abandoned mine land restoration construction contracts, about 27 people are employed directly or indirectly.  Similarly, in testimony submitted to the Committee last year, the State of New Mexico noted that AML projects are a source of jobs for New Mexicans and stated that, “all construction work is performed by private contractors, almost all of whom are based in New Mexico.”      

 In sum, on the West Branch, as in many other places, the technology to fix the problem is available.  States, communities, and conservation groups have the will.  All that is needed is a stable source of funding to contribute towards the overall cost. 

 The AML Fund currently provides some limited but extremely useful funds for cleaning up polluted water.  More and stable funding is needed.  TU is familiar with two ways in which the AML Fund provides resources for cleanups:
•OSM’s Clean Streams Initiative, currently funded at $10 million annually, derived from the federal share of the AML Fund, and
•Decisions made by individual states to allocate some of the funding they receive through the AML Fund to cleanup programs.

Started in 1994, the Clean Streams Initiative focuses on eliminating abandoned coal mine drainage and aspires to be a true citizen-government-industry partnership bringing together a unique combination of manpower, funding, and expertise.  The initiative has so far funded 77 projects in 10 states, combining the skills of university researchers, coal industry figures, citizen groups, the business community, conservationists, and local, state, and federal representatives.  The initiative has proven to be a particularly effective method of empowering volunteer-led restoration work. 

The science and effectiveness of the cleanups paid for, in part, by the AML Fund, are improving every year.  Methods of water treatment used to eliminate acid drainage from abandoned underground mines can be grouped into two types.  The most common method is chemical treatment.  Called active treatment because it requires constant maintenance, this method usually involves neutralizing acid-polluted water with hydrated lime or crushed limestone.  This treatment reduces acidity and significantly decreases iron and other metals.  However, it is expensive to construct and operate and is considered a temporary measure because the acid drainage problem has not been permanently eliminated.

The second treatment method is called biological, or passive control.  This technology involves the construction of a treatment system that is permanent and requires little or no maintenance.  Passive control measures involve the use of anoxic drains, limestone rock channels, alkaline recharge of ground water, and diversion of drainage through man-made wetlands or other settling structures.  Passive treatment systems are relatively inexpensive to construct and have been very successful on small discharges of acid drainage, such as those on the Kettle Creek watershed.

TU has worked with state agencies and OSM on cleanup projects in a number of eastern states.  Highlights include the following:  

Kettle Creek, Pennsylvania

The AML Fund has provided several hundred thousand dollars to restore Kettle Creek.  TU and its partners have made significant progress during the past five years in efforts to abate acid mine drainage in the lower Kettle Creek watershed.  Our Lower Kettle Creek Restoration Plan provides the overall blueprint that guides the assessment and remediation activities, and this plan is being supplemented with data from airborne remote sensing surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory.  These surveys used thermal infrared and helicopter-mounted electromagnetic technologies to identify the acid mine drainage problems and to target key areas for remediation work.

Two on-the-ground projects have already been completed as a direct result of the Lower Kettle Creek Restoration Plan and several more are currently underway.  The ultimate goal of our project work is to reclaim 17 miles of trout stream.  The completed projects will restore native brook trout populations, create a new recreational fishery, expand the local economy that depends on outdoor recreation and tourism, improve water quality in local communities, and contribute to the overall restoration of the West Branch of the Susquehanna as it flows downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. 

Coal Creek, Tennessee

 In east Tennessee, TU’s Clinch River chapter is working closely with the community of Briceville to clean up acid mine drainage in Coal Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River.  After addressing chronic flooding and stream bank erosion problems that plagued the community for decades, the chapter is turning its attention toward the creation of four new wetlands near abandoned mine sites.  The wetlands will filter out the majority of pollutants, including acid and heavy metals, such as iron, which currently pollute Coal Creek.  But in order to initiate construction, our local volunteers are depending upon funding from the Clean Streams Initiative.

Rock Creek, Kentucky

 In Kentucky, TU is working with OSM, state water and fisheries agencies, and the U.S. Forest Service to restore Rock Creek in the Daniel Boone National Forest.  Although parts of the creek are healthy and provide fine trout fishing, some stretches are badly damaged by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.  TU and its partner agencies are removing coal mine refuse from the banks of one stretch of the creek, and are implementing passive liming and treatment of other acid-impaired stretches, in a large-scale effort to restore this key tributary of the Cumberland River.

 As you consider the two bills, we recommend the following:
 Retain flexibility in existing law’s priorities.  S. 961 eliminates the “general welfare” provision of both priories 1 and 2.  TU has no intention of advocating any changes in the public health and safety priorities of the existing law.  However, the large need for cleaning up water pollution caused by abandoned coal mines, and the great benefits to communities and states derived there from, leads TU to be a strong advocate of retaining the current priorities.

 Although S. 1701 also eliminates the “general welfare” provision of priorities 1 and 2, it does allow land, water and environmental restoration on land that is adjacent to a priority 1 site to be treated as priority 1.  Moreover, we recognize and appreciate the fact that S. 1701 increases the allowable percentage, from 10% to 20%, of funds that states can set aside for acid mine drainage.  While this language definitely helps, we prefer to retain the “general welfare” provisions in priorities 1 and 2 so that states can retain the full range of existing options in determining how to best prioritize the needs of communities. 
S. 961 requires the Secretary to review all amendments to the AML inventory made after 1998 and remove sites that rely upon the general welfare standard.  We disagree with this provision and, as mentioned above, recommend that general welfare projects in priority 1 and priority 2 continue to be funded.  

 Extend the authorization to 25 years.  Everyone agrees that we need to “finish the job” of making communities safer and cleaner.  S. 1701 would only ensure the viability of the AML Fund for 10 years and S. 961 extends the authority for 13 years.  Most experts agree that given the complicated nature of the remaining challenges, a horizon of 25 years is more likely needed to complete the tasks before us.  Reauthorization legislation should extend the life of the fund for the same time frame.

 Maintain existing fee levels.  S. 1701 reduces the existing fee levels which we feel is inappropriate given the overarching objective of putting money on the ground to complete projects.  We recognize and appreciate that S. 1701 contains fee reductions that are less than those contained in the bill introduced by Senator Thomas during the 108th Congress.  However, we respectfully request that the Committee retain the current fee structure as S. 961 does. 

 Provide mandatory funding and increase available funding for the Clean Streams Initiative.  S. 1701 requires that OSM provide the existing balance of the state-share and tribal-share allocations to the states and tribes through mandatory payments not subject to the appropriations process.  We agree with the concept of making AML funding mandatory because if our goal is to “finish the job,” we should get on with it.  Currently, more than $6 billion is needed to fix high priority public health hazards associated with abandoned coal mines.  To clean up water and watersheds, a total of $15 billion is needed.  Despite this need, more than $1.5 billion that has been collected remains unspent.  Therefore, TU encourages the Committee to make the entire AML Fund off-budget and not subject to the annual appropriations process.    

Moreover, we recommend that you dedicate $25 million annually from the off-budget Reclamation Fund to the Clean Streams Initiative.  Specifically, we urge you to gradually increase funding for the Clean Streams Initiative from its current $10 million level up to $25 million annually over the 25 year authorization.    

 Consider authorizing a similar reclamation fund for cleaning up abandoned hardrock mine pollution in the western United States.  Although a few western states, such as Wyoming, use some of their AML Fund allocations for non-coal mine abandoned hardrock sites, the need for restoration of these sites far outstrips available resources.  In the West, it is not a matter of finishing the job of cleaning up abandoned hardrock mining sites, it is imperative to get started.

It is estimated that more than 500,000 abandoned hardrock mine sites litter the western landscape.  According to EPA, abandoned mines affect the health of 40% of western headwater streams.  This pollution threatens coldwater fisheries, contaminates drinking water for millions living downstream, and jeopardizes local economies.  We recommend that the Committee take a serious look at the problem and start developing a legislative solution to establish a fund for cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines.    

 As a first step, we recommend you authorize and fund a west-wide inventory of abandoned hardrock mines.  Upon completion of such an inventory, interested parties will be better able to assess and prioritize cleanup projects.

 To conclude, thank you for your leadership and commitment to reaching consensus on a long-term reauthorization of the AML Fund.  TU pledges to work with the Committee to help craft appropriate amendments and move a bill to the Senate floor expeditiously.