Climate

Bipartisan Bill Would Help Out-Of-Work Coal Miners Find New Jobs

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pool/Rick Bowmer

Two lawmakers want to make life a little easier for coal miners who have lost their jobs in recent years.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) introduced legislation this month that would create a program to help transition out-of-work coal miners into new jobs. The bill, called the Healthy Employee Loss Prevention Act (HELP Act), would create a “worker adjustment assistance program” that would help former coal miners with finding jobs or retraining programs.

“Across West Virginia communities are being decimated by what’s happening to the coal industry,” McKinley said in a statement. “Coal miners and other workers are being hurt by factors beyond their control, whether it’s regulations or market forces. It’s only fair we do something to help these struggling families. This legislation represents a bipartisan effort to move beyond our differences and offer help to the proud men and women of the coal industry who are out of work.”

The bill would create a commission that would approve those former coal miners who applied and were eligible for assistance, eligibility that hinges on whether the miner’s job loss was tied to the coal industry’s downturn (which the representatives note in a press release has been caused by a number of stressors, including competition from “alternative fuel sources” — mainly cheap natural gas). The assistance program would work similarly to the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, which provides assistance to workers in the U.S. who have lost their jobs due to foreign trade.

“American coal workers are national heroes,” Welch said in a statement. “With grit and determination, they fueled America’s rise to an economic powerhouse. While there are strongly held views in Congress on climate change and energy policy, there should be no disagreement that America has an obligation to ensure displaced workers in the coal industry transition successfully to good jobs in other sectors.”

As the Burlington Free Press reports, Welch, whose state of Vermont doesn’t have any coal-fired power plants, is an unlikely champion of a bill aimed at transitioning coal miners. But he and McKinley have worked together before on energy legislation, and Welch told the Burlington Free Press that he was inspired to work on the HELP Act by a photo he saw in McKinley’s office of a coal miner and his daughter.

“It’s just a beautiful photograph about the pride of this man, the hard work that he does and the joy he sees in taking care of his family,” Welch said. “And I got to talking about it.”

Welch, who has spoken out against climate denial among his colleagues on the Hill before, also said he hopes the legislation can help spur a conversation about ways to fight climate change that will be easier on coal miners.

The Blue-Green Alliance, a group that brings together environmental and labor interests, said in a statement that it applauds the HELP Act, but that the legislation could be “strengthened in several key areas,” including by ensuring that coal miners who go through the program find “quality employment” that matches or exceeds the “well-paid jobs that have been lost.”

Welch and McKinley’s legislation isn’t the first initiative aimed at getting out-of-work coal miners back into jobs. In June, the Department of Labor announced a $7.5 million award to Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc. (EKCEP) to help former coal miners in Kentucky find new jobs. West Virginia received a similar Department of Labor grant in 2012.

Both states have been hit hard by the coal industry’s downturn: in 2013, there were fewer coal jobs in Kentucky than there had been since record-keeping began in the state in 1927. New mining practices, such as mountaintop removal, have contributed to the loss in traditional mining jobs, and the coal industry has also suffered economically due to competition from natural gas, which has emerged as a cheap fuel source in the United States.

Still, though coal’s downturn has been apparent for a number of years, multiple lawmakers in coal-heavy states have been quick to disparage the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposed rule on power plants, saying it will place too much of a burden on the coal industry. However, the EPA’s new rule, as it’s currently proposed, doesn’t target individual coal plants — rather, states are able to decide for themselves how to meet the targets in the proposal.