Congress Can and Should Act to Support Coal Communities

September 9, 2016 | 11:50 am
Jared M. Dort / Wayne National Forest
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

Congress returns from recess to a big opportunity to support coal communities, by passing the RECLAIM Act (H.R.4456), which would release existing funding for the cleanup and redevelopment of abandoned mine lands with the goal of spurring economic development in these communities. I previously blogged about this bill when it was introduced by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY-5) back in February. This month, the House Natural Resources Committee will be considering a revised version of the bill, hopefully leading to a markup and a vote out of committee. While the RECLAIM Act might not make the list of big ticket items Congress is facing (like approving funding to fight the Zika virus and passing spending bills to keep the government open) it nonetheless represents a big chance to invest in economic development in coal communities. And it has strong support from the communities it’s designed to help.

Strong support

Twenty-eight localities around Appalachia have passed resolutions supporting policies like the RECLAIM Act. The bill now has 17 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans. I’d highlight two important points about the bill. First, these are existing funds, not a new tax–the bill simply uses a portion of the unappropriated balance of the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund, to the tune of $1 billion over five years. Second, the bill not only provides funding for cleaning up former coal mining sites but also prioritizes projects that put these sites to good uses, supporting economic development and revitalization of the communities that surround them.

The AML fund was established by the Surface Mining and Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA). Although the law has only been amended a few times in the intervening years, administration of the AML fund is complex. Since SMCRA required new mines to be reclaimed by the coal operator after mining ceases, the AML applies only to mine sites that were abandoned prior to the passage of the 1977 law. Many of these sites were never properly cleaned up.

The AML program is more than a pool of funding. It’s a set of programs to address the legacy costs of coal mining, funded by a per-ton fee on current coal production. Because the original law set forth a general formula for distributing this revenue, but did not make the allocations mandatory, it was left to Congress each year to determine funding through its appropriations process. As a result, the unappropriated balance of the AML is currently around $2.5 billion. (To learn more about the complexities and history of the AML fund, check out this comprehensive report by the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and the Alliance for Appalachia.)

RECLAIM would provide funding to clean up pre-1977 abandoned mine sites (to include both land and water), for projects that are likely to lead to economic development of the project site for the benefit of the communities where they are located. And it would prioritize projects in communities that have been affected by recent decline in coal mining activities, potentially helping to put laid-off coal miners back to work in a variety of new opportunities, including agriculture, recreational tourism, and even renewable energy.

Principles for RECLAIM

Grassroots advocates in Appalachia have worked tirelessly to educate the public and Members of Congress on the importance of a program like RECLAIM. In fact, their work to get local resolutions passed in support of the idea was instrumental in spurring Rep. Rogers to introduce the bill and work towards passing it into law.

The group of both grassroots and national organizations has developed a set of principles that we believe should be represented in the final version of the RECLAIM Act. These include:

  • Ensuring that the benefits reach communities with significant economic need;
  • Ensuring that a variety of stakeholders shape the vision and priorities for the types of projects to be funded in each state;
  • Ensuring that each individual project includes robust stakeholder collaboration;
  • Prioritizing innovative projects that deliver economic benefits to local communities; and
  • Giving states and tribes sufficient time to solicit, select, and implement the best projects.

See here for more details.

Path forward

We hope that the revised language of the bill will incorporate the principles laid out above. The Committee on Natural Resources in the House may well hold a hearing on the bill this month. If your Member of Congress is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, please encourage him or her to support this bill. And lend your support to the growing number of grassroots organizations and citizens supporting economic development in Coal Country.