The new Barton Elementary School was once the pride of this western Maryland coal-mining town, but today many parents are afraid to send their children there.
Water seeping from two abandoned mines last year caused a mud slide on the steep hill behind the school that blocked a nearby road and knocked down trees and power lines.
"The elementary school is located just below where the water comes out the heaviest," said Barton PTA President Stanley Broadwater.
"We think it's only a matter of time before that whole hillside goes, and takes the school with it," he added.
Sealing the mines is a top priority of the federal Soil Conservation Service's office here, but conservation officials said that the Interior Department, which controls their budget, repeatedly has cut funding for their abandoned mine-reclamation program.
Conservation officers said that the program has been "orphaned" by the Reagan administration and as a result, they charged today, federal reclamation efforts in western Maryland have ground to a halt.
Their statements in this small town, 20 miles south of Cumberland, came in a plea to Rep. Beverly Byron, (D-Md.), who was on a campaign tour of this coal region; she spent some time with conservation officials at the mine sites.
Byron, who represents the 6th District, which stretches from the state's westernmost border to the outskirts of the Washington suburbs in Montgomery County, is a member of the House Interior Committee and its subcommittee on surface mining, which puts her in a a key position to influence Interior Department spending.
Standing atop a 15,000-ton heap of waste material, known locally as a "gob pile," soil-conservation officials asked Byron to guarantee a stable source of funding for the program, which -- despite its funding source -- is administered through the Agriculture Department.
"We've put together reclamation plans and have been led to believe funds would be there, but there has been no money," said Ron Hawk, a soil conservation officer.
Hawk said the Maryland program only received funding in 1981 and has carried out only one reclamation project. It has worked on others, but only under a contract with the state Bureau of Mines, which also has a program to reclaim abandoned mines.
Coal mining was once a major industry here and the region was a major supplier for the Navy during World War I. The industry fell on hard times when cheap oil replaced coal as a major fuel, and like most of the Appalachian hills, the ground under Barton was left honeycombed by abandoned mines.
Water flowing from abandoned mines is polluting local streams and the Potomac River with sulfer and acids from the coal residue of hundreds of gob piles, officials said. Officials said reclamation costs $8,000 an acre, and they estimated that there are about 7,500 acres that need it in Allegany and Garrett counties.
The conservation service's reclamation program was created by passage of the Surface Mining, Control and Reclamation Act during the Carter administration.
The act levied a 35-cent tax on each ton of strip-mined coal and a 15-cent tax on each ton of deep-mined coal to pay for the clean up and reclamation.
Half of the tax is returned to the state. The rest is earmarked for federal programs run by the Soil Conservation Service and the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, said Tony F. Abar, director of the Maryland Bureau of Mines.
Abar said the Interior Department has not requested funds for the program in the past two budgets.
"For the last couple of years the program has been pretty much nonexistent because of former Secretary James Watt and the administration," Abar said.
The Reagan adminstration sought to cut funds for the national program by almost $7 million this year, but Byron said Congress appropriated $10 million for federal reclamation, over administration protests.
"If you're going to start a program like this, you're going to have to implement it on a regular basis," said Byron. "It does trouble me when [money] has been appropriated and authorized" and not spent.