If the notion of mining reclamation as a path to economic development leaves Kentuckians skeptical, who can blame them? The track record is weak in a region that was the nation’s poorest even before the coal industry’s current collapse.
Despite those misgivings, we’re urging residents of Eastern Kentucky to think creatively about a new possibility for linking the cleanup of old coal mines to economic opportunity and jobs.
We’re also urging government at all levels to aggressively engage the public in generating ideas and plans for spending $30 million in Eastern Kentucky through the Abandoned Mine Lands Economic and Community Development Pilot Program, for which U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers won congressional approval late last year. Pennsylvania and West Virginia are also in line for $30 million each through the program.
The Bevin administration on Monday issued an invitation for projects.
Who better than the people who live near the old mine sites to envision a new purpose for them and also to be practical about the possibilities?
But a smart early step would be to hold local meetings with maps and clearer information about the locations of eligible sites and what kind of projects are being sought.
Congress created the Abandoned Mine Lands program in 1977 when it enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The industry pays a fee on each ton of mined coal to repair safety and health hazards created by mining before the reclamation law took effect, which in Kentucky was 1982. The hazards include polluted water, slides, dangerous impoundments, other flood threats and fires both above and underground.
In Kentucky, $140 million in AML funding over the last three decades has brought municipal water to places where mining contaminated the groundwater.
The AML money has been dribbled out to states and tribes in amounts far below need. Kentucky has identified $462 million in unrepaired hazards with more discovered all the time. Meanwhile, in Washington, the fund has built up a $2.5 billion surplus.
President Barack Obama and Rogers have proposed releasing $1 billion of that surplus over five years to spur economic activity in places that are suffering from the coal industry’s decline.
Successful pilot projects would build congressional support for releasing the $1 billion to where it’s owed and needed, while knowledge and feedback gained from the pilots could improve the program.
It’s a complicated undertaking. Most of the sites are small, less than 5 acres, and many are remote.
In Kentucky, the Cabinet for Energy and Environment, which oversees the AML program, is collaborating with the Department of Local Government and the Economic Development Cabinet. But local thinking will be needed to wring the most value and opportunity from the pilots.
We’re also reminding the Obama administration and the federal OSM, which will have final say on the applications, that healthy air, land and water are the building blocks of a healthy economy. Eliminating mine-related pollution or flood threats removes barriers to development and is valuable even if no canoe livery or business incubator is attached. AML reclamation jobs pay $30 to $40 an hour and suit the skill sets of unemployed miners.
Nobody’s going to start a business that might end up under a landslide or ankle deep in mud because an old mine blew out. The environmental advantages of a proposal should weigh heavily in its favor.