Eastern Kentuckians in Harlan and Perry counties recently received two rude reminders of why Congress should get behind President Barack Obama's plan to accelerate payments for cleaning up safety and health hazards from abandoned coal mines.
On March 6, an abandoned underground mine blew out above the historic coal town of Lynch in Harlan County, sending a torrent of mud and debris into the downtown and buckling a major road.
Fortunately, no one was injured and only basements were flooded. But such lurking physical legacies of a century of coal mining are poor advertisements for economic development in a region that desperately needs new businesses and jobs.
In Perry County, three recent landslides were caused by damage from past mining, and the state says repairs will cost $1.32 million.
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The state has yet to estimate what it will cost to stabilize the underground mine that flooded Lynch.
But the cleanups and repairs in Harlan and Perry counties will move ahead of other known hazards from abandoned mines that Kentucky has listed for repair.
Kentucky will get just $18.2 million in fiscal year 2015 to clean up an inventory of $344 million in high-priority hazards from abandoned mine lands.
The money comes from a federal tax levied on the coal industry for the specific purpose of cleaning up damage and hazards from old mining. The abandoned mine lands fund contains almost $2.5 billion owed to places such as Harlan and Perry counties.
And, yet, Congress traditionally sits on most of the money the coal industry has paid to clean up after itself, dribbling out funding in amounts far short of what's needed.
Obama's latest budget proposes releasing $1 billion over the next five years — $200 million annually — to hasten the cleanup and also to help jump-start the economies in poor Appalachian places that have been hit hard by the coal industry's decline.
In Kentucky, the $344 million estimate is far below actual need — as the recent mud-fests illustrate. Neither the Harlan nor Perry mines were on the state's inventory of abandoned mine sites prioritized for repair.
Almost one in 10 Kentuckians live near an abandoned mine, and many of the hazards won't be known until an old mine blows or slides into roads and houses or poisons a water source, threatening property values and lives.
If only Capitol Hill oozed with mud and poisons, we might see some action. Congress, especially the Kentuckians in Congress, should support sending the AML money where it's owed — now.