Op-Ed

16 coal-county leaders implore McConnell to move RECLAIM Act

Elk-watching is expected to be a key attraction at a planned wildlife center in Bell County.
Elk-watching is expected to be a key attraction at a planned wildlife center in Bell County. Lexington Herald-Leader

Congress has pending before it the opportunity to provide a $1 billion boost to the local economies struggling with the decline of the coal industry.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the power to make this a reality for hundreds of Kentucky families looking for the means to make a decent living and stay in the Kentucky communities they call home.

That’s why we — and 14 other county judge-executives across the state — sent a letter to McConnell imploring him to see that the RECLAIM Act becomes law soon. The best opportunity to do this is by making it part of the omnibus spending legislation that Congress intends to pass by March 23.

The RECLAIM Act (H.R. 1731 and S. 728) calls for the accelerated release of $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, a program established by Congress in 1977 to reclaim land and water resources adversely affected by past coal mining and left abandoned or inadequately restored.

The legislation before Congress would allow this additional $1 billion, released over five years, to be tied directly to local economic and community development efforts connected to reclamation projects. Kentucky’s share would be about $100 million. And Congress already has the money to fund the RECLAIM Act. The $1 billion is part of the unappropriated balance of the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.

We need the economic development benefits the RECLAIM Act would catalyze. We believe the RECLAIM Act could be a big step toward building diversified economies in our counties.

Across Kentucky an AML pilot program, tied to local economic development efforts, has already spurred projects that are generating new economic activity. Here in Bell County we’re leveraging local assets — elk, bear and other wildlife — to create a massive wildlife viewing and education center on what used to be a mountaintop removal site. It’ll employ more than 100 people directly and should have a big impact on the local economy as well.

In Floyd County, AML pilot funds are being used to get a “Rails to Trails” project going on rail lines that used to be crucial for hauling coal. In Magoffin County, a similar Rails to Trailsproject that already has found success will be able to increase its tourism draw with the development of expanded facilities and attractions. In Perry County, laid-off coal miners are being trained as lineman in the power sector in a facility on a reclaimed coal mine.

The potential is endless, and the opportunity for funding made possible through the RECLAIM Act will spur more creativity and planning.

As county judge-executives and leaders in our respective communities, we know the impact of such projects — providing sustainable jobs that allow families to stay in our communities, spurring additional economic activity and giving our areas much-needed hope.

Albey Brock is Bell County’s judge-executive. Jim Ward is judge-executive of Letcher County.

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