Eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia hit hard by a sharp drop in coal jobs would share in a $1 billion lifeline under the budget proposal put forth Monday by President Barack Obama, though the budget faces difficult prospects in Congress.
The budget includes a proposal to release $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land fund over five years for reclamation projects that could improve the economy of distressed coal communities.
Though details are still to be worked out, distribution of the money would be based on factors such as unemployment rates and the potential to link reclamation of land and polluted water to job-creating strategies, according to the White House.
One example people in the region cited Monday would be planting trees on sites left largely barren by surface mining that happened before 1977.
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That work could create a significant number of jobs relatively quickly while also restoring the environment and building the base for an improved wood-products industry in the long term, said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, who took part in a White House briefing on Obama's proposal.
"I think it's a huge opportunity for Appalachia," Maxson said of the budget proposal.
Responses from Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern and Southern Kentucky and chairs the Appropriations Committee, showed the difficulty facing Obama's proposal.
Rogers said Obama knew his tax increases and budget gimmicks "will never be enacted into law."
However, both also said the ideas to help Appalachia deserved full consideration.
The money from the abandoned mine-land fund would not require a tax increase.
Obama's proposal also includes an additional $20 million for programs such as job training to help laid-off miners, an extra $25 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission to help entrepreneurs in areas hit by coal-job losses, $5 million for communities affected by shut-downs at coal-fired power plants, and $97 million in grants or loans for infrastructure projects in places where changes in the coal industry are causing economic hardship, according to the White House.
Eastern Kentucky certainly fits that description.
Coal production in the region has plunged the past few years because a combination of factors, including competition from natural gas and from cheaper coal mined elsewhere in the country; tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality; and the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves, which contributes to higher mining costs.
More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky withered away since early 2012, and the losses have spread through the economy.
The labor force in a 23-county area of Eastern Kentucky dropped by 18,295 people from August 2013 through September 2014, according to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
Distributing $200 million annually among state and tribal areas from the abandoned mine land fund could reverse some of those job losses, supporters said.
Money in the fund, commonly called the AML fund, is generated by a tax on each ton of coal mined. It is designed to fix problems such as unstable land and damage to water supplies from mining before 1977, when Congress approved new standards for surface mining and reclamation.
There have been complaints for years about Congress not authorizing enough spending from the fund.
There is $2.48 billion in it now, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Most of the unreclaimed mine land is in Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky.
The Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands lists $445 million worth of unfunded projects.
Obama's proposal creates the chance to use the money in more creative ways and orient it more toward economic development, rather than spending it solely on emergency work such as landslides or unconnected projects, supporters said.
In addition to reforestation, there would be opportunities such as improving water supplies or planting fruit and nut orchards, said Eric Dixon, who is with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg.
The center had begun studying the AML fund before Obama's announcement.
"These sorts of projects represent a regional reinvestment that could put hundreds of miners and others to work doing reclamation work now, while building a foundation for local business opportunity beyond the near-term," Dixon said.
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, said Obama's proposal not only would boost jobs and development but would help restore the environment in a way that would put the region on a better course for the long run.
"When you look at how hard our economy has been hit, it's a godsend," he said.
On another front, Obama proposed shoring up United Mine Workers of America health and pension funds, including the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan and Trust, which the White House said was underfunded and approaching insolvency.
That plan covers 100,000 former miners or their widows and families, many of them in Appalachia, the White House said.
The proposal also has help for retirees who suffered lost or reduced benefits in the 2012 bankruptcy of Patriot Coal Company.
The proposal would cost about $4 billion.
The UMWA said in a statement that through no fault of its own, retired miners have seen the pensions and health care "they earned in blood and tears" threatened by the downturn in the coal economy.
On another issue that could be important to Kentucky, Obama proposed more than $2 billion in tax credits to boost the development and use of technology to capture carbon-dioxide from power-plant emissions.
The administration's move to limit emissions of carbon — a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change — has been a particular concern in Kentucky.
The state gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal and has a number of older coal-fired plants, which are a major source of carbon emissions.
The White House release said coal would continue to be a critical part of the nation's energy mix for years.
That didn't win any points with powerful Kentuckians in Congress.
McConnell and Rogers dismissed Obama's overall budget proposal out of hand.
Rogers said Obama was asking for billions in additional spending with no realistic way to pay for it.
McConnell called the proposal "another top-down, backward-looking document that caters to powerful political bosses on the left and never balances — ever," and that it is cold comfort the administration had suddenly proposed steps to ease the pain it has caused with anti-coal policies.
But Rogers also said his committee would "certainly bear in mind the dire needs of these hard-hit communities while ensuring that every taxpayer dollar is responsibly spent to jump start the economy and create new job opportunities — in Appalachia and elsewhere."
And McConnell said anything aimed at helping coalfield communities "should be seriously considered."
For his part, Gov. Steve Beshear said Obama's proposal lines up well with an initiative he and Rogers started called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, which is working on plans to improve the economy and quality of life in Eastern Kentucky.
"I hope that Congress will review the proposal without making it this week's target practice for partisan bickering and gridlock," Beshear said. "For an issue as important as Appalachian development and support, party-line antics do nothing but delay or even eliminate needed investments."