Kentucky

Hillary Clinton's plan to help coal country gets mixed reviews in Eastern Ky.

An Obama administration plan calls for spending $1 billion over five years to repair damage to land and water from abandoned coal mines, with the goal of tying the reclamation work to projects that would provide a longer-term economic boost.
An Obama administration plan calls for spending $1 billion over five years to repair damage to land and water from abandoned coal mines, with the goal of tying the reclamation work to projects that would provide a longer-term economic boost. Herald-Leader

Hillary Clinton's proposal to help miners and communities hurt by a drop in coal production and jobs covers a range of approaches, including grants to train workers and help small businesses, support for energy-efficiency programs and stepped-up efforts to reclaim abandoned mine lands.

Clinton, who is seeking the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, also supports changes to help miners pursue claims for black-lung disease and to shore up pensions for tens of thousands of retired miners and their families, according to her campaign.

Clinton's campaign said coal communities helped power the nation's prosperity for more than a century, and now that they're grappling with the transition away from coal, they deserve help.

"The hard-working Americans who mine, move, and generate power from coal put their own health and safety at risk to keep our factories running and deliver the affordable and reliable electricity we take for granted," Clinton's coal plan said.

However, it remains to be seen if the proposal will help Clinton make headway against charges of a federal regulatory "war on coal" that have helped Republican candidates in Eastern Kentucky.

The state's eastern coalfield is suffering through a sharp downturn in the coal industry that long underpinned the economy. Coal jobs have dropped by half since 2011.

There are a number of reasons for that, including competition from cheap natural gas and cheaper coal from other regions; the depletion of large seams that were less expensive to mine; and tougher environmental rules aimed at protecting air and water quality.

However, many people in the region blame the downturn mostly — or entirely — on environmental rules.

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley, a Democrat, said it appears Clinton's proposal includes some good initiatives that could help his home region, and that Clinton deserves credit for paying attention to problems in coal country.

But what many people want is regulatory relief for the coal industry. That would be the quickest way to put miners back to work, Mosley said.

"Anybody's plan that doesn't address that is not going to be well received in my area," he said Thursday.

Clinton's plan certainly didn't mention backing away from environmental rules.

And Clinton's campaign said she supports what the Obama Administration calls the Clean Power Plan, which would mandate significant cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.

Supporters argue the plan will tackle damaging climate change, improve air quality and health and boost development of renewable energy sources, but many in Kentucky and elsewhere see it as regulatory over-reach that will further erode coal jobs and drive up electricity prices.

Kentucky is among the states suing to block the plan.

Republicans quickly blasted Clinton's proposal. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said Clinton would continue Obama's failed environmental policies that are killing jobs, and Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said "if Hillary Clinton were truly on the side of coal country, she would stand up to extreme anti-energy environmentalists that run the Democrat Party instead of embracing their agenda that is killing jobs and driving up costs."

Clinton's campaign released her plan to revitalize coal communities on Thursday. The release valued the proposal at $30 billion, but did not spell out spending for each piece.

The proposal said Clinton's infrastructure program would include a focus on building roads, bridges, water systems and other projects in coal country, and that she would support research on how to capture carbon emissions from power plants.

It also said that if declines in coal production or the closure of a power plant had hurt revenue to a public school, Clinton would set up a program to offset the losses in coal-related revenue "until alternative sources of local tax revenue arise through economic growth."

Parts of the plan echo Obama Administration proposals.

For instance, Clinton's campaign said she would "unlock" money in the federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program to reclaim old surface-mined sites.

Clinton said those sites could be used for forestry, agriculture and manufacturing with proper reclamation and infrastructure.

Coal companies pay a fee into the AML fund, which is to be used to fix problems such as landslides and water pollution from mining that took place before the late 1970s. About $2.5 billion has built up in the fund.

Obama has called on Congress to approve spending $1 billion from the fund over five years for reclamation, with an eye toward tying the work to projects that would help diversify the economy.

A number of local governments in Eastern Kentucky have endorsed that proposal.

Clinton's announcement noted initiatives to diversify and improve the economy in Central Appalachia are taking shape, mentioning specifically the SOAR — Shaping Our Appalachian Region — effort in Eastern Kentucky.

Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, started the initiative in 2013 to draft and push plans to try to boost the region.

However, Clinton said many federal programs available to help coal communities are complicated or fragmented, while others such as the Appalachian Regional Commission are underfunded.

Clinton proposed awarding competitive grants for entrepreneurship and small-business development, education and training efforts and health programs.

The proposal said Clinton also would increase funding for local arts and culture programs that are designed to boost economic development.

The proposal said that Clinton would award grants to programs that improve the housing quality and energy efficiency, mentioning the How$martKY program as a successful model.

How$martKY is a program of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), in partnership with rural electric co-operatives, to improve energy efficiency at homes in Eastern Kentucky through measures such as adding insulation.

The co-op pays for the work and homeowners repay the co-op through an additional charge on their electric bill, said Peter Hille, president of MACED.

That makes the work more affordable because people don't have to pay all at once. And the energy savings are greater than the charge on the bill, Hille said.

MACED had provided much of the funding for the program through loans to the co-ops.

"How$martKY benefits the customers through savings, helps the utilities through demand reduction, and provides jobs for the contractors who do the retrofits," Hille said.

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