As coal miners in Letcher and Harlan counties were opening layoff notices, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently told an audience in Lexington that he's ready to work with President Barack Obama "to do something really big."
That's convenient, because they have a chance "to do something really big" for thousands of unemployed miners by securing $1 billion in the president's budget.
We tried last week, with limited success, to discover the status of Obama's proposal to pump $200 million a year for the next five years into cleaning up abandoned mine sites and related water pollution in Central Appalachia.
This reclamation effort could put many miners back to work and set the stage for economic redevelopment.
The $1 billion would come from a $2.5 billion fund established by Congress in 1977 for repairing the coal industry's environmental legacy. The money comes from a tax paid by the industry.
Congress traditionally dribbles out the fund in amounts far less than reclamation needs. Congress also keeps sending money from the fund to western states to splurge on public works and campus construction projects because they have no more abandoned mine lands to clean up.
Obama's proposal to accelerate payments already owed to Kentucky is alive but not moving.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, powerful chairman of the appropriations committee, put a $30 million pilot program to accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands in a bill awaiting a House vote. Not much, but a start.
A spokeswoman for Rogers said Obama's far more ambitious plan requires changes in the surface-mining law that fall outside Rogers' purview. "Despite multiple requests," the administration is dragging its feet on submitting language to make the changes, she said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining said the agency is still eager to work with Congress to accelerate reclamation but the "sequester is undermining these and other important investments for our economy."
The sequester refers to across-the-board spending cuts that Congress enacted to force itself to develop a rational deficit-reduction plan but that Republicans now want to make permanent.
Both House and Senate committees have approved modest components of Obama's plan — dubbed POWER Plus — for economic diversification and jobs creation in places hardest hit by coal's decline.
But neither chamber has acted to stabilize the mine workers pension and health fund that covers thousands of Kentuckians or on Obama's proposals for $5 billion in tax credits for carbon capture technologies that could keep coal viable as a power-plant fuel.
So, in Washington, there's finger-pointing, blame games and inaction — nothing new.
Meanwhile, in the chronically poor region whose labor and natural resources fueled 100 years of U.S. economic expansion, there's more suffering — nothing new.
The 100-plus Kentuckians who recently received layoff notices from Alpha Natural Resources join more than 7,000 coal workers in Eastern Kentucky whose jobs have disappeared since early 2012 as demand for the region's coal plummeted — a trend that is only going to deepen.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that coal production in Central Appalachia will drop from 127 million tons last year to less than 100 million tons by 2023 to about 86 million tons by 2037 — a decline since 1997 of 70 percent.
In 18 months Obama will no longer be president and McConnell may no longer lead the Senate's majority. Time is running short on this "really big" chance for places that really deserve it.