As the clock runs down on the 114th Congress, some Kentuckians are making a last-ditch effort on behalf of people and places hit hard by the coal industry’s decline.
As best we can figure, the two pieces of legislation they are championing face at least two major roadblocks:
▪ Politicians from Wyoming who insist that their state should be able to keep building sports arenas, roads and other non-mine related projects with money paid by the coal industry into a fund for repairing public hazards and environmental damage left over from mining that was done before 1977.
▪ Our own Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s powerful majority leader, who is a famous friend of coal but less a friend of coal miners, especially if they belong to the United Mine Workers of America, whose retirement benefits are at risk.
McConnnell on Tuesday did offer encouragement to the 16,000 UMWA retirees, including 3,000 Kentuckians, whose health benefits will expire at the end of this month unless Congress acts. McConnell said he has called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to include protection of the health benefits in the government funding resolution that must pass by Friday.
McConnell made no mention of the bipartisan plan to rescue the UMWA pensions, a rescue that would also save the federal agency that insures pensions from insolvency.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was not impressed with McConnell’s stopgap, threatening to hold up the spending bill unless McConnell lets the Senate vote on the Miners Protection Act, saving UMWA pensions which are tottering because of coal industry bankruptcies.
The UMWA pension and health funds pump more than $100 million a year into Kentucky, in places hurting the most from the industry’s decline. McConnell’s sympathies lie with coal operators who dislike the miners union and with fellow Republicans who dislike all unions. But he would be truly cold-hearted to let the pension fund collapse at such a high cost to the coal communities that have entrusted him and other Republicans with their votes.
As for the westerners who insist that if they can’t have the abandoned mine lands money, no one can, we can only appeal to conscience. The money should go where the need is. Wyoming has documented needs of $68 million to repair such hazards as dangerous slides, polluted water and underground fires, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining. Kentucky has documented more than five times that much — $357 million in need — while Pennsylvania has almost $4 billion in need.
The RECLAIM Act, sponsored by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, would accelerate $1 billion in payments that are already owed to Appalachia, where need is greatest and the money could put some miners back to work cleaning up the dangers left by the industry before Congress enacted reclamation requirements.
Members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth have been delivering petitions supporting the two measures to McConnell’s offices in Kentucky and Washington. Thousands of Americans have signed the petitions. They understand what is fair and just. Does Congress?