$1 billion aid proposal for coal areas has strong support in poll

There is strong support among voters of all stripes for a proposal that would provide $1 billion for mine reclamation projects in Eastern Kentucky and other areas hurt by a slump in coal jobs, according to a seven-state poll released Monday.

The poll found that 89 percent of registered voters back what is known as the RECLAIM Act.

The proposal would speed up the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land fund.

The idea behind the proposal is to use the money for reclamation work linked to efforts to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky and other areas long tied to coal.

More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have withered away in recent years, sapping the economy.

There are a number of factors behind that sharp downturn, including competition from cheap natural gas and other coal sources; tougher federal rules aimed at protecting air and water quality; and the depletion of premium seams, which drives up production costs.

If the RECLAIM bill is approved, it would release a total of $1 billion over five years to participating states and tribes for reclamation projects.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern and Southern Kentucky, said the state would get a total of $100 million under the bill.

That would be on top of its regular appropriations. The state received $17 million from the fund this fiscal year, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Rogers announced the RECLAIM bill in February. The House has approved it, but not the Senate.

Rogers said the measure has bipartisan support.

“Momentum is growing for RECLAIM among members of coal-producing states in the East and West, and passing this bill remains a top priority for me and Congressional leaders as we round out this legislative session,” Rogers said Monday.

The Sierra Club and the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy commissioned the poll released Monday to try to boost support for the measure.

Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, conducted the poll of 1,050 registered voters in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennyslvania and Tennessee, according to a news release.

All those states have land that could be reclaimed with money under the proposal.

In addition to overall backing of 89 percent for the proposal, there was clear support among respondents in every age group, income bracket and political party, according to the polling company.

For instance, 93 percent of Democrats, 89 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of independent votes said they support the measure, according to a release.

At least 84 percent of voters in each age group said they supported the proposal, and minimum support among various income levels was 88 percent, the release said.

“Voters throughout these states recognize the struggles in the coal-mining communities,” Lori Weigel, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, said in the release. “Nine in 10 tell us that communities that have traditionally relied on coal mining should work to diversify and attract new types of businesses. They clearly see this as an opportunity to help these towns do so.”

The poll, conducted Sept. 8-15, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.02 percent.

The poll also asked people which is more important for elected leaders and decision-makers — helping coal communities attract new jobs and making sure workers get jobs in growing industries, or fighting regulations that have made it harder to mine coal, in order to get back good-paying mining jobs.

The poll found 62 percent said leaders should prioritize economic development instead of fighting regulations, while 32 percent backed fighting regulations.

Respondents also sided with arguments for the measure 3-to-1 over arguments against it, such as that coal communities don’t need a federal bail-out and the government should instead get rid of regulations.

The AML fund comes from a fee companies pay on the coal they mine. It is designed to fix problems such as landslides and water contamination from mining that occurred before Congress set up new reclamation rules in 1977.

In Kentucky, it applies to sites mined before May 1982, when the state was approved to operate its reclamation program.

The money at issue in the bill is supposed to be released to states eventually, but the proposal would disburse it more quickly at a time when people in coal country are looking for new strategies.

The bill also would change the rules in order to tie reclamation to economic-development efforts, such as creating sites for agriculture, forestry or tourism projects.

The AML program ordinarily gives priority to the most pressing problems, such as a landslide threatening a house

Supporters in Eastern Kentucky say the RECLAIM proposal would not only clean up environmental problems, but help develop projects that could provide long-lasting jobs.

“We need Congress to get behind us and follow local leadership in building a dependable economy with good, meaningful jobs that create opportunities and repair our land and water,” Sarah Bowling, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said in a news release on the polling results.

Bowling, of Lexington, and other supporters are in Washington, D.C this week to lobby for the proposal.

(cut from here if needed) “RECLAIM isn’t the cure all, but it’s a solid step in the right direction toward a just transition,” Bowling said.

The poll was released in conjunction with the lobbying push.