As I visit our faith communities in Eastern Kentucky, I frequently hear of the hardships families face because of the decline of the coal industry.
I have seen a decrease in membership of our parishes as younger members move out and many find no local opportunities to make a decent living. The people in that part of our commonwealth have heard many promises about economic revitalization only to have their hopes dashed when those proposals failed to materialize.
The RECLAIM Act of 2017 (House Resolution 1731) actually offers a cause for optimism as it combines concern for the natural environment and opportunities for employment. But there is not much time left for its passage.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Hal Rogers and enjoys bipartisan support. It has made it through the House Natural Resources Committee, but is in need of strong support to ensure it is brought to the House floor for a vote in December. It would put people to work reclaiming abandoned mines and creating opportunities for economic and community development.
The funds are already available; implementation would use roughly $1 billion from the reserve of the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund which is currently languishing in Washington.
Here in Kentucky, we have qualifying abandoned mine sites with up to $460 million worth of cleanup work needed; the RECLAIM Act would provide the commonwealth with more than $100 million to start this work over the next five years.
This would result in both short-term jobs doing the clean-up work and long-term jobs on the reclaimed mine sites, providing an economic stimulus to the adjacent communities. The legislation requires that the reclamation must align with a locally driven strategic vision for future economic benefits.
Unlike the recent congressional battles over health care and tax reform, the RECLAIM Act has gained significant bipartisan support with 40 co-sponsors for the bill from the Appalachian region and beyond. There is confusion because of two other versions of the bill with the same name in the Senate, one of which is being sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell.
McConnell’s version, which does not enjoy bipartisan support, lacks the important component of community involvement and the economic diversification on reclamation projects. I urge Kentuckians to ask McConnell to support the original purpose of the RECLAIM Act, including community engagement and economic diversification, which are currently only contained in HR 1731.
These are the elements for which many of his constituents have fought. The RECLAIM Act is designed to prioritize the communities most in need to restore areas affected by coal mining. It will transform polluted lands and waters and make them available for economic revitalization.
As a community of faith, we look for these kinds of opportunities which protect and restore the wonders of creation and offer possibilities for meaningful employment. The time is short for the passage of the RECLAIM Act. Let’s make sure our representatives are in support and ready to act.
Bishop John Stowe serves the Diocese of Lexington.