I agree with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell’s and Rep. Hal Rogers’ assessment that the RECLAIM Act “represents a massive environmental and economic revitalization opportunity for Appalachia.”
But the bill they introduced before their recess wasn’t the RECLAIM Act that communities across Appalachia fought for. It cuts language from the original bill that promoted community participation and economic diversification as criteria for coal-mining reclamation funding.
Cutting this language will have a major impact on the bill’s mission and the quality of the projects meant to help coal communities rebuild their economies.
It’s important to remember that the $1 billion RECLAIM Act didn’t just drop out of thin air, it came about because dozens of community activists across Appalachia lobbied, petitioned and wrote letters to local officials to pass resolutions urging their congressional representatives to support the Power+ Plan.
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RECLAIM drew heavily from that 2015 proposal to fund mine-cleanup projects that help communities historically dependent on coal by employing local workers and creating long-term opportunities for businesses to develop.
For months, coal-state groups, community leaders and local elected officials asked their federal representatives to take up Power+, and after dozens of resolutions, hundreds of phone calls and even more emails, Rogers introduced RECLAIM with bipartisan support.
Born out of this grassroots movement, RECLAIM’s appeal to many communities was that it was centered on economic diversification and empowering local communities to shape cleanup projects.
It makes sense when you think about it. Why shouldn’t they choose projects with an eye toward agriculture, renewable energy and recreational tourism? Why wouldn't we want to maximize the economic potential of that money?
Unfortunately, the McConnell-Rogers bill doesn’t maximize the return on this investment. Without clear language that prioritizes community participation and long-term economic diversification as a criteria for cleanup projects, there are no guarantees that those benefits will materialize.
What’s needed in Appalachia are opportunities that extend beyond coal mining, and more community-oriented industries that produce good, family-sustaining wages, union memberships and good benefits. Without clear language in the bill prioritizing economic diversification, McConnell and Rogers are risking the future of many of the communities they say they’d like to help.
Equally troubling is the fact that a recent McConnell-Rogers’ op-ed conveniently skips over how their bill is different from the original RECLAIM Act, even as they state in the piece that they are seeking the same community-oriented economic development goals. In order for real change to happen in communities increasingly being left behind due to a changing energy landscape, we need the text of the bill to live up to its goals.
This is why it is important for coal communities to reach back out to McConnell, Rogers and the RECLAIM Act’s other congressional supporters and urge them to put the community-accountability and economic-diversification language into the newly introduced bill.
McConnell and Rogers are off to a good start by introducing this bill, but they must stay true to the grassroots values that clamored for its introduction.
Teri Blanton of Berea is an activist on issues affecting Kentucky’s coal communities.