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Tribe Fighting to Retain AML Funds

A column by Madeline Roanhorse about Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Two weeks ago, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (Super Committee) failed to meet its legislative mandate of cutting $1.2 trillion from federal spending over 10 years. This past August, President Obama proposed to eliminate payments to certified Indian Tribes and States Abandoned Mine Land (AML) programs as part of his proposal to achieve the spending cut. The proposal was included in the president’s economic growth and deficit reduction plan submitted to the Super Committee.

The president’s plan to eliminate AML payments was the sole tribal specific provision in the proposal and it would have directly affected the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and the Crow Nation (Montana). Under the 2006 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) law, certified Indian Tribes such as the Navajo Nation are mandated to continue receiving payments from fees collected from current and past coal production on the Navajo Nation. However, the President’s plan ignored this important statutory provision.

From the onset, I must note that AML fees collected from coal production on the Navajo Nation is trust resource income. This income rightfully belongs to the Navajo Nation and Navajo People. In December 2006, Congress amended SMCRA to ensure that the AML funding distribution process allowed certified Indian Tribes and States to receive their unallocated AML Trust Fund balance from the U.S. Treasury.

The Navajo Nation currently has an estimated amount of $48 million in its treasury trust fund. It would continue to receive this appropriation and a portion of Navajo coal taxes collected throughout the reauthorization period which ends in 2022.

Over the past 25 years, the Navajo Nation AML used successfully address AML coal mining problems that were left abandoned on Navajo homelands without responsible parties. The Navajo Nation AML reclaimed 260 sites and it continues to monitor and maintain these sites. In 1994, the Secretary of Interior concurred with the Navajo Nation AML’s program certification that all eligible coal mines were reclaimed.

This certification authorized the Navajo Nation AML to address other SMCRA related problems as the law intended, primarily abandoned uranium and copper mines. Approximately 1,000 non-coal mines sites have been inventoried; 944 of these sites have been reclaimed. Without future funding, this important environmental work will end.

Further, under Section 411 of SMCRA, certified Indian Tribes and States are authorized at their discretion to establish a Public Facilities Program (PFP). The authorization provides a mechanism to address the long term effects of mining operations on impacted communities by providing funding to build basic, yet vital, community infrastructure through innovative partnerships.

In 2001, the Navajo Nation established the PFP. Through the PFP, the Navajo Nation AML is able to partner with a number of tribal and Federal agencies to assist in projects such as Head Start centers, Senior Citizen centers, Water deliver and waste water systems, electric line extensions, road improvements, education facilities, open air vendor centers, dental clinics and the like.

In the past several weeks, several Navajo communities such as Church Rock, White Cone, and Dennehotso have celebrated the completion of their community projects, which included an electric line extension and Multi-Purpose Buildings. To date, the Navajo Nation AML Department has funded 73 community public facilities and infrastructure projects.

The total Navajo Nation AML investment in communities impacted by mining activities is $19 million. Using Navajo AML funds as matching and contributing funds, Navajo communities through innovative partnerships have been able to leverage additional funding for their community projects.

President Obama and the Department of Interior have tried over the last three Federal budget cycles and through the Super Committee to eliminate AML fee payments to certified Indian Tribes and States. Most recent, on November 16, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced legislation to eliminate AML fee payments to certified Indian Tribes and States. With the assistance of Congress, the Navajo Nation, the Crow Tribe and the Hopi Tribe continue to oppose these efforts. We hope the Federal government will see that AML programs in Indian Country are important and must be shielded.

For continued support of the Navajo AML Department, I would like to thank our partners, the Office of the President and Vice President, the Navajo Nation Washington Office, Senators Jeff Bingaman (NM), Jon L. Kyl (AZ) and Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) for their support and assistance in keeping our funding intact. The Navajo Nation AML Department’s fundamental commitment is assuring the wellness and safety of the Navajo people by safeguarding abandoned mines. We hope to continue our work through 2022.

Madeline Roanhorse has managed the Navajo Nation AML Department for more than 10 years. She currently serves as the president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs.