How to Help Coal Communities Recover from the Pandemic

April 28, 2020 | 2:46 pm
public domain
Jeremy Richardson
Former Contributor

This is the second part in a two-part series

As I argued in my last post, the workers and communities that depend on coal for their economic livelihoods need deliberate, sustained, and comprehensive action to ensure that they recover from the economic devastation left behind by the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has touched all Americans in some form or another, but it has laid bare the reality that the most vulnerable among us—communities of color and working class folks—are hurting the most and dying more often. That is simply unacceptable.

As UCS does its part to lift up the voices of our most vulnerable communities, to protect working people, to push for including climate resilience, clean energy, manufacturing, and energy efficiency in economic recovery, to highlight the importance of protecting clean energy jobs in communities of color, and to fight to protect our democracy, here are some policies that Congress should adopt right away to help coal communities.

Immediate needs to protect workers

Below are some specific and targeted policies for coal workers that Congress should include as part of legislation designed to address the immediate crisis:

  • Enact the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act (H.R.6559), which would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
  • Because coal miners would not be covered under that proposal since their workplace protections are governed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Congress must similarly require MSHA to issue a temporary emergency standard to protect coal miners from contracting and spreading COVID-19.
  • Ensure that black lung clinics have adequate funding to meet the needs of coal miners suffering from black lung—people who are at much higher risk of complications or death from COVID-19.

Put workers first, not companies

Congress must continue to reject the egregious request of the National Mining Association to absolve its member companies of their collective responsibilities to workers and the environment. On the contrary, Congress should ensure stability of these programs through:

  • Extending the excise tax on coal production for ten years to support the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (R.3876).
  • Reauthorizing the reclamation fee for 15 years that supports the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Fund by passing the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act Amendments of 2019 (R.4248). The government estimates that there is more than $10 billion in remaining cleanup needs for pre-1977 abandoned mines.

Furthermore, Congress should leverage the AML for driving economic development in coal communities through cleaning up abandoned mines:

  • Release existing money from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to clean up abandoned mines and spur economic development on reclaimed land by including the RECLAIM Act (R.2156), which has already passed the House Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support. The bill would distribute $1 billion in existing funds for coal communities from the AML Fund and create about 4,600 jobs over 5 years.

Preparing the workforce for new opportunities

As I described in my last post, coal communities need attention in economic recovery efforts. The Great Recession provides an example; establishment of new businesses since the Great Recession was concentrated in urban centers and suburbs, and employment growth was much slower in rural areas compared to urban areas.

So as these communities rebuild their economies from multiple crises—both the pandemic and the structural decline of coal—they will need robust and sustained support from the federal government to help drive community-led solutions. Federal programs across multiple agencies support worker retraining efforts and economic development in communities, programs that will be crucial to the hardest hit rural communities in recovering from the economic downturn. Here are some initial steps Congress should take in designing economic recovery packages:

  • Authorize the Office of Economic Impact, Diversity, and Employment within the Department of Energy (DOE), as proposed in Title VIII, Subtitle C of the 2020 CLEAN Future Act, to ensure that dislocated and unemployed energy workers and underrepresented groups have access to training and apprenticeship programs in the energy and manufacturing sectors.
  • Ensure robust workforce development and training programs in the states by increasing funding for the Employment and Training Administration which administers the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and by increasing community participation.
  • Increase funding for worker training programs and community economic development programs across the federal government. Federal efforts to respond to the economic crisis should incentivize community workforce agreements, apprenticeship programs, and project labor agreements that focus on creating job opportunities for historically disadvantaged and underrepresented workers.
  • Increase funding for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Education and Training Program and the Department of Labor’s Susan Harwood Training Grants program.

Investing in community and economic development

Federal programs across multiple agencies support worker retraining efforts and economic development in communities, particularly those reeling from the decline of coal, and these programs will be crucial to largely rural communities in recovering from the economic downturn. Congress must double-down on these programs to ensure that communities have access to critical resources. Two big priorities are:

  • Increase funding to at least $400 million per year for the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative within the Appalachian Regional Commission. The POWER Initiative was funded at $50 million per year from FY16 through FY19, and requested funds were more than six times this level in FY18.
  • Increase funding to at least $100 million per year for the Assistance to Coal Communities (ACC) program at the Economic Development Administration within the Department of Commerce. ACC was funded at $30 million in FY17 through FY19, up from $10 million in FY15 and $15 million in FY16. EDA will need additional appropriations to build capacity to distribute these grants.

Prioritize coal communities in infrastructure development and environmental cleanup

Coal communities, particularly in rural regions in Appalachia and the West, as well as tribal communities have been left behind in the development and maintenance of modern infrastructure systems. I offered some personal stories that exemplify these problems in my last post. House leaders had initially proposed a $760 billion infrastructure package at the beginning of the year, and there is talk of including infrastructure spending in future recovery packages. As policymakers debate the scale and extent of infrastructure investments, they must

  • Prioritize the infrastructure needs of rural communities through investments in health care (especially tele-health), broadband, distance learning, and water delivery and wastewater treatment systems.

Environmental cleanup remains a barrier to long-term economic development in many coal-dependent communities. The EPA Brownfields program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes and others to assess, safely clean up and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. This program is extremely important for community revitalization and economic development, and it also helps create jobs in communities.

  • Increase annual funding for EPA’s Brownfields redevelopment program to $2 billion to support economic development and sustainable approaches to local land use. Brownfield redevelopment must incorporate community-driven planning and protect against community displacement.

But even more must be done. For example, coal ash is a by-product of burning coal, and leads to contaminated groundwater and polluted waterways. Cleaning up all that pollution could create jobs—especially for the folks that will begin to lose their jobs as more coal-fired power plants close.

Finally, UCS has been advocating for clean energy priorities as part of the economic recovery effort, and some of these could help coal communities if designed well. These include:

  • Reauthorizing the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program (EECBG) to support energy efficiency and conservation projects in local communities across the country, spurring job growth and saving consumers money.
  • Establish a “National Green Bank” to provide low-cost financing for clean energy and climate resilient infrastructure projects and include dedicated investments that directly benefit low-income communities, communities of color and coal communities.

First steps

These policies represent a necessary first step in helping rural America, especially coal-dependent communities, recover from the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. But it is only a first step, and policymakers must remember that true recovery will require sustained funding and consistent policy that empowers local communities. And keep in mind that the extent of the economic suffering has not yet been realized. Analysts were abuzz as oil prices briefly went negative last week, but what will the crisis in the oil and gas sector mean for workers on the ground?

Creating a new, clean, sustainable economy out of the ashes of the old one will require visionary action. More to come.