Right idea on use of mine funds: Invest in local economies, says Pike official

Wayne T. Rutherford
Wayne T. Rutherford

Declaring "the time for hand-wringing, slogans and bemoaning is over," Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford is calling on President Barack Obama and members of Congress to help reclaim billions in coal taxes to reinvest in the Appalachian coalfields.

They should heed his call.

The $2.5 billion fund comes from a tax on mined coal that was enacted in 1977 to repair the industry's environmental damage.

Kentucky has documented more than $300 million in need, but the federal government dribbles out the Abandoned Mine Lands money in amounts too small to come close to fixing the problems, which include poisoned water, land slides and other hazards.

Perennially one of the nation's poorest places, Eastern Kentucky's troubles are compounded now by coal industry layoffs of more than 6,000 people over the last 18 months.

The AML money could put idled miners and their equipment back to work repairing coal industry damage.

Rutherford proposes expanding the AML fund's uses to also include infrastructure and economic development, which makes perfect sense.

The long-time Pike County leader made his pitch in a Sept. 23 letter to Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, that he also sent to Obama and members of Congress from Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

Rutherford implores them to "work to free up this vital AML money, not to spend recklessly or indulgently, but to reinvest responsibly in our coal counties."

Eastern Kentucky has seen its one major industry slammed by the high cost of production as the fat, easily excavated coal seams have been depleted.

At the same time the energy market has been flooded with cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. The demand for Eastern Kentucky coal will take another hit in 2015 when Kentucky Power plans to retire an 800-megawatt coal-burning unit at its Big Sandy power plant near Louisa.

Pike County was deposed as Kentucky's No. 1 coal-producer earlier this year by Union County in Western Kentucky. While coal employment in Eastern Kentucky declined 10 percent in the second quarter of 2013, coal jobs increased 1.5 percent in Western Kentucky.

Over the noise of the "War on Coal" sloganeering, some mountain leaders are getting serious about building an economy that will last beyond coal. It's good to see Rutherford join those ranks.

"Now — and with haste," he wrote, "we must act and invest if we are to reclaim Central Appalachia's future for our people. The leadership here has the passion and commitment to save our economy and tomorrows. We need understanding, cooperation and a viable plan in order to succeed."

That last point about a "viable plan" is supremely important. There is no plan. It's time to get to work — in as open, democratic and accountable a way as possible — on developing a smart economic plan for the mountains.

Then use tax revenue to restore abandoned mine sites to restore the economy of the region the coal industry is abandoning.