McConnell signs on as sponsor of $1 billion proposal to help coal areas

In this 2009 file photo, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell talks with US Rep. Hal Rogers before a private reception in Corbin, Ky.
In this 2009 file photo, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell talks with US Rep. Hal Rogers before a private reception in Corbin, Ky.

The leader of the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has signed on to help push a proposal to free up $1 billion for reclamation projects in Eastern Kentucky and other struggling coal areas, increasing the potential for the idea to become law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his support on Monday for what is known as the RECLAIM Act.

U.S. Rep Hal Rogers, a Republican whose district includes the state’s eastern coalfield, introduced a similar proposal in February 2016 as a way of boosting areas where the economy has been riddled by a steep drop in coal jobs, but the measure did not clear the House.

The proposal would accelerate the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land, or AML, fund. The idea is to tie the reclamation of mined sites to projects that could help diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky.

Examples could include reclaiming the land for industrial or agricultural uses.

Rogers announced Monday that companion proposals had been introduced in the House and Senate, with McConnell was the lead sponsor in his chamber.

There is bipartisan sponsorship, the two said.

“After suffering eight years of job losses in the coalfields, Kentucky families and communities are in need, and this bill would provide additional resources to these regions,” McConnell said in a release.

Supporters have said the measure could pump extra money into coal areas for development at a time when they are desperately trying to diversify their economies, at no extra cost to taxpayers. Coal companies pay a fee into the AML fund; the $1 billion is part of what the companies have already paid.

The fund has an unappropriated balance of $2.4 billion, according to a release from Rogers.

In addition, money could be used for a broader range of projects than funding under the regular AML program.

Money from the AML fund is supposed to be disbursed eventually to states anyway, but the RECLAIM act would speed up the release, funneling $200 million to states annually for five years.

Rogers said Kentucky would have received a total of about $100 million over five years under the initial proposal, in addition to its regular AML disbursements.

“Over the last eight years, we’ve lost more than 13,000 coal mining jobs in Kentucky alone, and through this bill, we have an incredible opportunity to make sure that our coal producing states can access funding that is readily available to restore our land and revive our economy,” Rogers said of the new proposal.

RECLAIM stands for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.

States could use up to 30 percent of the money they receive to fix acid mine drainage problems, according to a summary released Monday.

The new proposal is not a mirror of the first.

One new provision is that it would require the Appalachian Regional Commission to develop a plan to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C to somewhere in Appalachia.

Eric Dixon, who is coordinator of policy and community engagement at the Applachian Citizens’ Law Center and has studied the AML program, said the new proposal makes a change which would not mandate citizen engagement or an economic development purpose in reclaiming high-priority abandoned mine sites.

That raises a concern that most of the money could be spent on projects that did not advance economic development, he said.

All sites reclaimed under the program should include those provisions, Dixon said.

The bill would encourage projects at high-priority sites to be tied to economic development, but not require it, according to Rogers’ office.

Even without an economic link, projects funded under the bill would remedy pressing environmental problems.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and other groups took part in gathering nearly 10,000 names on a petition urging McConnell to support the initial RECLAIM bill last year.

The groups felt McConnell would have the most power to push the proposal.

Sarah Bowling, a Pike County native and KFTC member who now lives in Lexington, said she was glad to see some movement on the idea with the new proposals and McConnell’s support.

However, Bowling said she favors requiring all the spending to support economic development efforts.

“I want to be excited about it but I think the most important part of it all is to get these communities some economic diversity,” Bowling said.