WASHINGTON (AP) - The House passed a measure Friday that would extend a multibillion program to clean up abandoned coal mines.
The measure, part of a larger bill, would reauthorize the reclamation program for 15 years at a cost of $5 billion. Pennsylvania, which has the most acres of abandoned mines, would get $1 billion for cleanup during the course of the program.
It now moves to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has complained that the program changes would increase the federal deficit by $4 billion and shift the costs of the program from coal companies to taxpayers.
Nationwide, it is estimated that more than 3.6 million people live less than a mile from an abandoned coal mine. The price tag to clean up the worst sites is $8.5 billion.
Particularly in eastern U.S. coalfields, the unstable former mine land has been blamed for fatal accidents by hikers and ATV riders - 24 deaths in Pennsylvania were reported last year on abandoned mine land. They are also an environmental hazard that fuel underground fires and pollute waterways with toxins.
The bill would reduce the fees paid into the program and modify the formula so that coal mining states with more serious problems get a bigger stake of the money, while Wyoming would still get a share - about $500 million over the course of the program.
It also would continue to fund health benefits for thousands of retired union miners who worked for coal companies that no longer exist - a key issue for West Virginia lawmakers.
It would make spending for the abandoned mine lands program mandatory, which means it would not be controlled through the annual appropriations process.
"Today we changed that formula - and with it, created the conditions necessary to clean up our sites sooner than we could have ever imagined," said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.
The current law was set to expire in 2004, but has been extended multiple times and is schedule to expire next year.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved