Eastern Kentucky can have a future; Mitch McConnell holds one of the keys.

Repairs to a landslide at a school in Bell County won a federal reclamation award.
Repairs to a landslide at a school in Bell County won a federal reclamation award.

I operate a small business based in Clay County that reclaims abandoned coal mines. Six other reclamation contractors have joined me in writing an open letter urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass the RECLAIM Act this month by attaching it to the bill to fund the federal government.

The RECLAIM Act would invest $100 million in reclamation work in Kentucky. I have folks calling me routinely looking for employment, and by increasing the amount of cleanup work in Kentucky by $100 million over five years, the RECLAIM Act would enable businesses like ours to hire more employees.

Like many folks in eastern Kentucky, I started my career in the coal industry. In the early 1980s when there was plenty of work in coal, my brother and I started a small surface-mining business. But the boom didn’t last forever and by the early 1990s the coal business in the region had completely bowed out.

The needs of folks in Clay County didn’t disappear when coal jobs left. We had to find another way to support our families. By necessity, we got creative and started turning these environmental liabilities all around the region into job opportunities.

My brother and I founded Jackson and Jackson Reclamation Services, Inc. in 1992. We were very familiar with construction work that involved moving land on East Kentucky hillsides and working with waterways in the area, and we could operate heavy machinery because of our time in the surface-mining business. We’d heard about the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program, a government program that bids out jobs to contractors to reclaim abandoned mines, and we figured we would take a shot at fixing mine sites instead of tearing them up.

Reclamation jobs look very different depending on the problem you’re trying to fix. We do a lot of jobs reclaiming landslides, building concrete walls to stabilize roads or structures, and restoring polluted streams. Last year we stabilized a landslide that threatened the safety of students and staff at Bell County Central School, and the project received a recognition award from the federal government.

We’ve been running our reclamation business for a quarter century now. It’s a small, family-owned business based in Clay County where we grew up. We’ve had about eight to 10 employees on staff for many years. Most of them are equipment operators who do hand labor, operate heavy machinery, and complete the other tasks needed to get damaged mine sites cleaned up.

Some of my employees came out of the coal industry looking for work. Other staff members came right out of high school. They were looking for employment close to home and we hired and trained them on the job. We aren’t a huge company, but we’ve got a significant number of employees who have been with us for several years making their living doing work that benefits their community here. And that is about all you can ask for.

As our letter states: “Want to invest directly in the rural communities struggling with the decline of coal? Want to provide employment opportunities for laid-off coal miners? The RECLAIM Act is the only policy proposal Congress is considering that will do this at scale, through a $1 billion investment in our future. And, by the way, this is not taxpayer money — it’s $1 billion that the coal industry already has paid, for the express purpose of mine reclamation. The money is currently sitting in Washington. ....

“Congressman Hal Rogers has championed this effort since 2016, and Sen. McConnell introduced a version of the bill in 2017. However, McConnell’s version in the Senate is outdated and doesn’t prioritize economic development like the version in the House.”

In the past few years it’s been hard for many folks throughout the region. But if people will band together and try to get creative about using what we’ve got and creating new industry in our area, there can be a future in Clay County and Eastern Kentucky. As we say in the letter, “Now is the time for Sen. McConnell to bring home the House version of the RECLAIM Act, by attaching it to the must-pass funding bill Congress seeks to pass this month.”

Fred Jackson is the president and owner of Jackson and Jackson Reclamation Services, Inc. based in Manchester.