New Bill Would Clean Up Abandoned Coal Mines And Jump Start The Appalachian Economy

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

Mine foreman and electrician Randall Wright looks at mountains while working at the Sewell "R" coal mine Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in Yukon, W.Va. Wright was making $35 an hour up until last year before he had to take a job at $15 an hour or face unemployment.

Coal’s downturn is hitting economies in Appalachian states hard, but a new bill hopes to energize these economies, while also helping communities clean up old, abandoned mines.

The RECLAIM Act, introduced Wednesday by five representatives from Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, would make $1 billion available to coal communities that “have traditionally relied on the coal industry for employment or have recently experienced significant coal job losses,” according to a release from bill sponsor Hall Rodgers (R-KY). That $1 billion would come from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation (AML) Fund, which is headed up by the Department of the Interior.

“In Kentucky alone, we’ve lost more than 11,000 coal mining jobs since 2009. Instead of allowing those funds to go unused, now is the time to help our coal producing states reinvest in the coalfields with projects that can create new jobs and reinvigorate our economy,” Rep. Rogers said in a statement. “Many coal communities in Appalachia simply do not have the resources to reclaim the abandoned mine sites within their borders. This bill allows these communities to be proactive in restoring these sites and utilize them to put our people back to work.”

Coal has been declining in Central Appalachia for the past few decades. In 2008, coal production in the region — which includes parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee — fell to 235 million tons, a decrease of 20 percent from 1997’s peak production in the region. Since 2008, coal production across the United States has fallen by 15 percent, and in 2015, it dropped to a 30-year low. And once-prosperous coal companies continue to struggle: Arch Coal, one of the country’s largest coal companies, filed for bankruptcy in January, joining Patriot Coal, Walter Energy, and Alpha Natural Resources.

Coal’s decline in Appalachia can be linked to a number of factors, including competition from cheap natural gas and lower-sulfur western coal. On top of that, the automation of the coal industry means that fewer coal miners are needed to produce coal, which contributes to job losses.

As coal companies abandon mines in Appalachia, they leave behind swaths of land that are in need of restoration. That’s where the RECLAIM Act comes in — it will put money into restoring these lands, turning them into areas that are good for tourism, business, or other infrastructure.

“If this bill passes, it’s going to create a $200 million a year of just desperately needed money to fund creative, new economic development initiatives in the coal fields,” Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, told ThinkProgress.

The bill’s goals are similar to the Obama administration’s Power Plus Plan, which includes $20 million in funding for out-of-work coal miners and coal plant workers and $25 million in funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which seeks to improve economic opportunities in the region. It also comes as other efforts seek to get out-of-work coal miners back into jobs: one web design startup in Kentucky, for instance, is hiring former coal miners to write code. So far Bit Source, the start-up company, has only hired 10 workers, but it’s gotten nearly 1,000 responses to its job advertisements.

The bill also comes as the Interior Department is working to finalize the Stream Protection Rule, which takes steps to protect bodies of water in the U.S. from mining pollution — particularly from mountaintop removal mining, which is highly environmentally destructive and can bury entire streams with mining waste. On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the rule, with some lawmakers criticizing it as federal regulation that should have been left up to the states. Others, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), stood up for the rule, saying that it would help protect water sources for communities in Appalachia, many of whom have already experienced water contamination from mining activities.

“We just faced the Flint, Michigan tragedy. Don’t you think the people [in Appalachia] have the right to know what’s in their water?” Boxer said at the hearing.

The Stream Protection Rule can work in tandem with the RECLAIM Act, according to Appalachian Voices, because it helps protect the natural resources that can bring tourism revenue to Appalachian states.

“The driving goal of RECLAIM is to help coal communities rebuild their economies, hopefully in a way that will sustain them for generations to come,” said Adam Wells, Appalachian Voice’s economic diversification campaign coordinator, in a statement. “The Stream Protection Rule — especially if strengthened — could help protect and restore our water resources and rich aquatic life, one of the most valuable assets we have for building that new economy.”