Many in Kentucky — including this editorial board — have long called on Congress to release its grip on $2.4 billion paid by the coal industry to repair environmental damage from mining.
Finally, someone in Washington has responded.
President Barack Obama is proposing to accelerate disbursements from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and invest the money in economically distressed coal communities that have high unemployment, especially among miners.
Under Obama's plan, as much as $1 billion — $200 million a year — could flow into Appalachian coal country over the next five years.
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While it may be overdue, this investment could not come at a better time for Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the bipartisan initiative launched by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear to give Eastern Kentucky a fresh start.
Projects to restore land and water would provide immediate jobs. SOAR is laying the groundwork for a future economy but can't provide new jobs now. What Obama is proposing would.
And the jobs — from heavy-machine operators to land agents — would require skills that many in the coal industry already possess.
Longer term, restored and reforested land could provide the foundation for an expanded wood-products industry. Agriculture, biofuels and recreation are also options.
Restoring the land and sources of clean water would make the region more attractive to prospective employers, residents and visitors and help alleviate worries about mining's effects on human health.
Other proposals in Obama's budget are also aimed at helping communities hit hard by the coal industry's decline, including
■ $20 million for job training and other programs.
■ $25 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is helping fund SOAR, to support entrepreneurs.
■ $5 million for communities affected by coal-fired power plant closures.
■ $97 million in grants or loans for infrastructure projects.
Obama also is asking Congress to make good on earlier promises to retired miners by shoring up pension and health care funds for those whose employers went out of business.
Coal mined out of Kentucky's mountains powered the industrial expansion and centers of commerce that made the United States' the world's largest economy. Now that the coal industry is leaving, it's simple justice to help the region get on its feet.
But some in Congress will insist the country can't afford this and other spending proposed by Obama.
That claim cannot be made about the $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund.
The money is there; no new taxes or fees would be required. It was paid for the purpose of repairing damage to land and water from mining. And it is owed to states such as Kentucky which has inventoried $445 million in need and probably has more than that.
The Republicans who represent Kentucky in Congress should get busy educating their colleagues about why this money should be used — without further delay — as Obama is proposing and Congress intended.