Bill that promises $100 million for Kentucky coal communities gets another chance

Coal produced at an underground mine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky poured from the end of a conveyor onto a pile being used to load trucks that delivered the coal TVA’s Paradise power plant in December 2018.
Coal produced at an underground mine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky poured from the end of a conveyor onto a pile being used to load trucks that delivered the coal TVA’s Paradise power plant in December 2018.

A bill that would bring $100 million to Kentucky’s coal communities passed the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Wednesday and will advance to the full U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill, written by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, would pay for the reclamation of abandoned mine lands and, advocates hope, would foster growth in areas suffering from a sharp decline in coal production in recent years.

The Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act Of 2019 (RECLAIM) has received bipartisan support among legislators, and is backed by numerous civic groups in Eastern Kentucky.

“The Act, if passed, would provide an immediate economic boost by employing thousands of people in reclamation jobs across the country,” the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which advocates for the RECLAIM Act, said in a statement. “Many people in Central Appalachia possess the earth-moving skills necessary for this type of reclamation work, including laid-off coal miners and others.”

Still, the RECLAIM Act has failed in previous years to become law.

The bill passed the same committee in 2017, but never got a full vote in the House. It failed to pass the committee in 2016.

The act would free up $1 billion of unappropriated money from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation (AML) Fund and distribute it to coal-producing states and Indian tribes over five years.

Supporters of the legislation say it would act as a “fast-track” for $1 billion of AML money that has yet to be dedicated to any specific projects.

“This is money that’s already collected and sitting in the federal treasury,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Penn., a RECLAIM Act sponsor.

Sarah Bowling, a Pike County native who lives in Lexington, said the RECLAIM Act could help jump start an economic transition for her home county and other areas of Central Appalachia by reclaiming mine land and making it suitable for business development.

“It would not only put people back to work, it would clean up problematic sites. It would take land that’s toxic and reclaim in to the point where a business could be put on top of it,” Bowling said. “A just transition has to start somewhere, and getting people back to work is a great place to start.”

Recipient states would only be able to use the RECLAIM money for specific reclamation projects, including “to restore land and water resources; to seal and fill abandoned deep mine entries and voids; to plant land and prevent erosion and sedimentation; and to treat water damage created by coal mine drainage; among other purposes,” according to a press release from Rogers’ office.

Last year, Sen. Mitch McConnell introduced his own version of the bill, but he has yet to sign on to this year’s Senate version, which is backed by Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.

Asked whether McConnell plans to re-introduce a bill, spokesman Robert Steurer said McConnell “remains committed to ensuring funding is secured to reclaim abandoned mine lands as well as for economic development efforts in Central Appalachia.”

Steurer said McConnell’s office “continues to discuss the issue with constituents and colleagues.”

The bill has received steady criticism over the years from the National Mining Association, the lobbying arm of the coal industry, and from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, which called the RECLAIM Act a “billion-dollar boondoggle.”

“If Congress truly wants to help coal communities, it should move away from the tried-and-failed approach of taxpayer-funded economic revitalization, and reduce ineffective, burdensome regulations that drive up the costs for mining and using coal as an abundant, affordable power source,” Nicolas Loris, an economist and deputy director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute, wrote for The Heritage Foundation last year.

In a statement to the Herald-Leader Wednesday, Rogers praised the bill’s bipartisan support, saying it would bring much-needed relief to areas where thousands of miners lost their jobs in recent years.

“This legislation would fast-track available funding for reclamation of our abandoned mine lands, restoring and preparing our land for future economic development and job creation opportunities where it’s needed the most,” Rogers said.

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said he was glad the bill had passed committee, and said the already-implemented Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program, which distributes money to coal-impacted communities, has shown the value of economic development projects.

Last year, the fund approved a $2.55 million investment in Harlan County to restore an exhibit mine and to develop a scenic overlook on Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest point.

“This act will allow additional monies to flow to Central Appalachia and other areas that’s been devastated by the downturn in the coal industry,” Mosley said. “A lot of people have been able to see value in these types of investments.”

Lesley Clark contributed to this story
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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