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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Somewhere inside the 1,500 pages of the latest spending bill there's language: continuing of aerial law. It requires that a particular kind of Pennsylvania coal be sent by rail and ship and barge all the way to Germany and all at taxpayer expense. It's what they call an earmark, one of those special requirements that members of Congress tuck into appropriations bills. This particular earmark is actually old enough that the congressman who authored it died decades ago. NPR's S.V. Date explains.

S.V. DATE, BYLINE: On a cold winter's day, one whole ocean and one half a continent away, this is the warm sound of home.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

DATE: Heated water flows through radiators in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the largest American military installation outside the United States. The hot water is piped from the city's power plant, and that power plant generates it by burning Pennsylvania anthracite.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

DATE: It's not an easy journey from Schuylkill County in northeastern Pennsylvania. The coal's taken out of the ground here in Tamaqua, an old mining town nestled among the Appalachian Mountains.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

DATE: It's put on rail cars and shipped to an east coast port - Baltimore nowadays.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN CAR CLOSING)

DATE: Uschi Hoermann is a civilian contracting officer for the Air Force in Germany. She monitors the coal contract with the city-owned utility that runs the power plant.

USCHI HOERMANN: This is shipped from the States with a barge on the Rhine River and delivered to Rhinau. They have a storage area there and they pick up the coal as they need it.

DATE: But hold on. There's plenty of coal to be had right in Europe, for much cheaper and without all the shipping costs. So, why haul Pennsylvania coal to burn it in Germany?

HOERMANN: We have approximately 70 percent generated from U.S. anthracite coal. So, we can say approximately 9,000 tons under the contract.

DATE: Ah yes - the contract, the result of that old earmark. It calls for American anthracite, which is produced only in Eastern Pennsylvania. Jim Dyer is a lobbyist who spent decades working at the House Appropriations Committee. He began his career with a Pennsylvania congressman in the 1970s, back at a time more and more utilities were switching to oil and natural gas instead of coal.

JIM DYER: The industry was struggling and the Pennsylvania delegation wanted to do something to help it. And the one way it could help it was to get the federal government interested in buying some of it.

DATE: Congress didn't suggest an interest in Pennsylvania coal; it mandated one. The Defense Department began buying upwards of a million tons of anthracite a year. Soon enough, the Pentagon was complaining that it had no use for so much coal, that it had so much it was paving it over with asphalt to protect it from the elements, that it was far cheaper to buy electricity and heat from local communities. Over the years, those arguments swayed Congress. The million-ton mandate is down to those 9,000 tons still flowing to Kaiserslautern in Germany. Why? Again, long-time appropriations staffer Jim Dyer.

DYER: Someone must have requested that such provisions be continued.

DATE: Back in the '70s, that someone was Congressman Dan Flood. He left Congress in 1980. But one of his aides, Michael Clark, carried on, founding the Anthracite Industry Association to lobby Congress to keep the coal language. Today, Clark is still a lobbyist. His sole client: that German power company that is required to burn American anthracite. It's paid him about a quarter million dollars a year over the last decade. He declined to be interviewed for broadcast. For its part, the Air Force says that it follows the laws passed by Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

DATE: The member of Congress who represents Pennsylvania anthracite country is Democrat Matt Cartwright, who won the seat in 2012 running as an environmentalist. We caught up with him recently at a public hearing he was hosting in Wilkes-Barre. He acknowledges that the coal program is not ideal from an environmental standpoint but...

REPRESENTATIVE MATT CARTWRIGHT: It's one of those things in Washington that if you want to dislodge it, you have to well up a force of steam to get that done. I'm not aware of any great groundswell of support to get rid of it at this point.

DATE: And, Cartwright says, he's not ready to lead the charge to eliminate policy that's nearly a half-century old.

CARTWRIGHT: Before you dislodge a tradition like that, you want to study it closely.

DATE: This past December, the Air Force signed a six-year extension of its heating contract for Kaiserslautern, including a requirement that it continue burning American anthracite. S.V. Date, NPR News.

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