State

Hal Rogers announces $1 billion proposal to help Eastern Kentucky and other coal regions

This Jan. 14, 2013 file photo shows House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. on Capitol Hill in Washington.
This Jan. 14, 2013 file photo shows House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. on Capitol Hill in Washington. Associated Press

A proposal in Congress would provide $1 billion for mine reclamation projects in Eastern Kentucky and other areas grappling with a sharp downturn in coal jobs.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Kentucky’s eastern coalfield, announced the proposed legislation Wednesday.

The bill would speed up the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land, or AML, fund.

Under the proposal, the federal government would distribute a total of $200 million to participating states and tribes each year for five years beginning in 2017, with the goal of spurring economic development.

“This is an effort to get some jobs back,” Rogers said during a conference call.

Rogers said Kentucky would get about $20 million each year under the proposal, or $100 million total if it passes. That would come on top of the state’s usual AML appropriations, he said.

The state is set to receive $17 million from its regular AML payout in the fiscal year that begins in July, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

The AML fund comes from a fee companies pay on coal they mine. It was set up to fix problems such as landslides and water pollution from mining that took place before Congress adopted improved controls in 1977.

In Kentucky, it covers sites mined before May 1982.

The bill Rogers announced is called the RECLAIM Act, for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.

The idea is to pay for reclamation work tied to efforts to diversify the economy in places that have been dependent on coal and are suffering because of the sharp downturn.

More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have been wiped out in recent years because of competition from cheap natural gas and other coalfields, tougher federal environmental rules, high mining costs and other factors.

The AML fund has a balance of about $2.5 billion.

“Instead of allowing those funds to go unused, now is the time to help our coal-producing states reinvest in the coalfields with projects that can create new jobs and reinvigorate our economy,” Rogers said.

Projects under the bill could include reclaiming abandoned mine sites for forestry, agriculture, tourism or business uses.

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley, a Democrat, said there are a lot of opportunities to tie reclamation to economic development, and the need is critical.

“We’re essentially building an economy. We’ve been wiped out,” he said.

The money covered under the bill eventually would have been released to states, but not until 2023 and later, so the bill would make it available much more quickly, said Eric Dixon, who is with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg and has studied the AML program.

Spending under the proposal also would differ from other AML work because of the mission to advance economic and community development, said Adam Wells, who works with a group called Appalachian Voices.

Wells said the program ordinarily gives priority to fixing the most dangerous or dirty problems caused by abandoned mines, such as a landslide threatening a house.

The measure announced Wednesday would have to be approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Obama.

Obama proposed a similar idea a year ago to help areas hurt by declining demand for coal. The administration called it the POWER+ plan.

Some pieces were put in place, such as job training for laid-off miners, but Congress did not approve Obama’s proposal to spend $1 billion in AML money.

Rogers pushed through an alternate plan for $30 million each for Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to do a pilot project designed to tie reclamation work to economic development.

The new proposal, if successful, would provide money to Kentucky on top of that $30 million, which was a one-year appropriation.

Another key piece of Obama’s proposal that has not passed was money to shore up health and pension funds of union coal miners.

Rogers has been sharply critical of environmental rules pushed by Obama, which are aimed at improving air quality and attacking climate change but have hurt demand for coal from Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere.

Rogers said he wouldn’t stop fighting the rules, but would work with the administration on the AML idea. The White House was helpful in drafting the proposal and supports it, he said.

The White House issued a statement applauding the proposal, which Rogers introduced with other two other Republicans and two Democrats as co-sponsors.

Still, Rogers said it will be tough to pass the measure. He has tried unsuccessfully before to get more AML money for Kentucky.

Wyoming, the nation’s leading coal producer, blocked those efforts. But Congress reportedly approved nearly $600 million last year to address the state’s concerns over its AML funding.

Supporters hope that removes a roadblock to winning approval for the billion dollars in AML spending.

A 2015 study by the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center estimated that releasing the money could create thousands of reclamation jobs, which laid-off miners have the skills to do, said Steve Sanders, director of the center.

“People in Eastern Kentucky are in the depths of a difficult economic transition. This bill supports the broader effort to create a strong, just economy on the other side of that transition,” Sanders said.

The center had helped push a grass-roots effort to line up support for Obama’s POWER+ proposal.

Nearly 30 cities, counties or organizations in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee approved resolutions supporting the proposal.

Kimberly Shepherd, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said the AML proposal had given her hope for a better future for Eastern Kentucky.

“This bill, and the money that could come from the bill into our local economies, could give us a little more security,” Shepherd said. “It makes me feel like the future is a little less uncertain.”

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