A Short-Sighted Sequester Flows Through It, Now

Morgantown Dominion Post
25 March 2013
By Charlie Walbridge

The sequester of federal funding makes random cuts to many useful programs, but there will also be some unexpected losses. That’s because government agencies and nonprofit organizations often finance projects by tapping a variety of funding sources, including government programs and private foundations. Pulling this money together is challenging and the sequester’s random cuts undermine this process.

I’m on the board of Friends of the Cheat (FOC), a nonprofit Preston County watershed group that repairs damage to streams in our area from acid mine drainage. Although water quality problems at “bond forfeiture sites” is covered by the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, damage to land and water done prior to this act are not covered. The state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Abandoned Minelands Program, which repairs land ravaged prior to 1977, restores the land to a more natural appearance but does not clean up the water.

For the last 15 years, FOC has worked to bridge this gap. We’ve created and managed dozens of projects to clean up acid drainage from abandoned mines in the Lower Cheat River Basin. The results are easily seen. Twenty years ago the water below Pringle Run looked and smelled bad. Today this section of the Cheat is clean enough to support a thriving fishery. Eagles recently returned to the Cheat Canyon, testifying to this progress.

The work of cleaning up tainted streams is surprisingly complex. To begin, FOC staff tests water samples from streams throughout the region to identify those tainted by acid mine runoff. Once the results are in, we do further testing to identify the precise source of the acid pollution.

With landowners’ permission we study the site and engage engineers to develop remediation plans. Once plans are approved by the funding agencies and the landowner, we hire local contractors to keep the money in our community. Not surprisingly, a typical project takes several years from start to finish.

Each of these projects is funded by two different programs.

A watershed restoration plan created in 2005 qualifies us for E PA’s Section 319 grants under the Clean Water Act. This money is administered by the DEP and requires 40 percent matching funds. Our match comes from the Office of Surface Mining under the Watershed Cooperative Agreement Program (WCAP). FOC recently learned that this WCAP money has been sequestered. Without that 40 percent match, we lose 100 percent of our project funding. Multiply this by dozens of watershed groups throughout the Appalachian region doing this work and you can see the extent of the problem.

In the last few years I have been disturbed by the constant stereotyping of government workers as lazy and tax money as wasted. The vast majority of civil servants I encounter are honest and hardworking; some are exceptionally responsive and innovative despite a lack of political support for their work.

Government programs like those used by FOC maximize value by putting the money in the hands of states and local communities. This spending, far from being wasteful, enhances the value of our commonwealth: The network of public improvements and civil infrastructure that benefits everyone.

There will always be problems and inefficiencies in our government, as with most large organizations. Anyone who works for a big corporation encounters it, too.

Smart federal budgeting should combine carefully targeted expense reductions with solid efforts to raise revenues. We should not depend on random cuts.

I am outraged that mindless congressional obstructionism has put so much useful work at risk, and encourage everyone to let their representatives know that we need a balanced approach to government finance. That’s the only way to protect these, and other worthwhile programs.

CHARLIE WALBRIDGE is s a board member of Friends of Cheat. A whitewater paddler, he lives in Bruceton Mills. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.