Obama aides announce $65.8M in grants for coal areas

A coal train near Typo Tunnel Lane in Typo on Dec. 11, 2006.
A coal train near Typo Tunnel Lane in Typo on Dec. 11, 2006.

The Obama Administration has announced the availability of $65.8 million in grant funding to help communities hurt by a decline in the coal economy.

Agencies and nonprofits in Kentucky received a total of $6 million through the program last year.

Thursday’s announcement opens the way for a new round of applications.

The grants are part of what is called the POWER initiative, for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization.

The initiative is aimed at creating jobs and diversifying the economy of places where the loss of jobs in coal and related industries, including power plants and transportation, has caused economic hardship.

More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have disappeared since 2012.

Many people in the region blame the downturn on tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality, but analysts cite a variety of factors. Those include not just environmental rules, but competition from cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas and high mining costs in Central Appalachia.

Jason Walsh, a senior White House adviser, said in a conference call Thursday that there might be disagreement on why coal is in decline, but everyone should be able to agree about the need to help coal communities that have powered the nation but are now struggling.

The POWER initiative is part of a larger proposal by the administration.

Other notable pieces include proposals to shore up the health and pension funds of union miners and to speed up the release of $1 billion in abandoned mine land money for reclamation projects tied to economic development.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, who represents Eastern Kentucky, is pushing a similar proposal to expedite the release of $1 billion from the abandoned mines fund in an effort to create jobs.

Last year, the state of Kentucky received $3 million through the POWER initiative for programs related to a planned high-speed Internet network for Eastern Kentucky, such as helping businesses get involved in e-commerce.

Other grants last year included $500,000 to the Kentucky Center for Agricultural and Rural Development for a project that could help create markets for farmers; $275,000 for Appalshop for an information-technology certificate program; $1.2 million to WestCare to expand substance-abuse treatment in Pike County; and $100,000 to Perry County to help implement an economic development plan.

“Many communities across Appalachia — from coal mines to Main Streets — are being impacted as the world changes the way it produces and consumes electricity,” said Earl Gohl, federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission. “The POWER initiative can be a game-changer for Appalachia by partnering with these communities and investing federal resources to support local initiatives that will forge sustainable economic paths for the future.”