Posts Tagged ‘RECLAIM Act’

RECLAIM Act Advances in Congress

Thursday, February 9th, 2017 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Brian Sewell

In December, U.S. senators from four Appalachian states introduced the RECLAIM Act, a bipartisan bill that would direct $1 billion to clean up abandoned mine sites and repurpose them for an economically beneficial use.

The legislation, which was first introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) in early 2016, is a key component of federal efforts to stimulate economic opportunities in areas impacted by the coal industry’s decline, and it has been championed by long-time allies of the industry in Congress.

“We must make sure these communities and their residents get back on their feet, and this bill will do just that,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a sponsor of the Senate bill.

There is also strong public support for the RECLAIM Act in coal states. A September 2016 poll found that 89 percent of registered voters in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana support the measure.

The RECLAIM Act is expected to be re-introduced in the House and Senate in early 2017.

Senate bill signals hope for economy in Appalachian coal communities

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by cat

Contact:
Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Manager, 804-240-4372, adam@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

A recent study from Appalachian Voices identifies more than a dozen old coal sites in Southwest Virginia prime for repurposing.

A recent study from Appalachian Voices identifies more than a dozen old coal sites in Southwest Virginia prime for repurposing.

NORTON, VA – A bill announced today by senators from four Appalachian states for $1 billion to repurpose abandoned coal strip mines for economic development projects marks a significant step in the ongoing effort to revitalize local communities in the region.

The bill was introduced last week by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Bob Casey (D-PA). Called the RECLAIM Act, it mirrors a bipartisan bill introduced in the House earlier this year.

Local support for increased and expedited federal investment in the coal-bearing region of Central Appalachia has grown swiftly in the last two years as coal has continued to decline. Nearly 30 local government entities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee have unanimously passed resolutions calling for increased funding for economic development.

Funding through a RECLAIM bill represents part of a greater effort to support coalfield communities. This year, $65 million has been allocated specifically for immediate implementation of economic development projects in the region through the Obama administration’s POWER initiative, including nearly $47 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission for 174 coal-impacted counties across nine states. Additionally, $90 million has been allocated to West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania this year for pilot projects similar to RECLAIM’s intent of using old coal mine lands for economic development. The recent Continuing Resolution reauthorized that funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

A recent study from Appalachian Voices identified 14 abandoned coal mining sites in Southwest Virginia that would be ideal candidates for RECLAIM funding. The projects, including solar facilities, local parks and sustainable agriculture projects, represent well over $16 million in cleanup costs and $52 million in construction investments.

“This is great news. We’re grateful to Senators Kaine and Warner for taking leadership on introducing RECLAIM, and glad to know they recognize the urgent need for economic diversification and environmental cleanup we feel in our communities in far Southwest Virginia,” said Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Manager for Appalachian Voices. “The timing of this clearly shows that both chambers of Congress are committed to passing RECLAIM in 2017 and sets a strong path forward for that to happen.”

“I’m very glad to see our senators leading the way on RECLAIM,” said Adam Malle of Big Stone Gap, Va., and a board member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Last year we worked with our localities to pass resolutions of support for federal investment for economic diversification and we’re glad Senators Kaine and Warner heard that clear message from our local communities.”

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Reclaiming Mined Mountains to Beneficial Use

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Elizabeth E. Payne

More than half a century of surface coal mining has left scars across Central Appalachia. As mining operations moved from one coal seam to another, more than a million acres were reduced to barren landscapes or replaced with gravelly grasslands. And mountaintop removal coal mining leveled more than 500 hundred mountains across Appalachia.

At least 233,000 acres of land in Central Appalachia were damaged by mining before 1977 and are in need of reclamation, according to a 2015 analysis by Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia based on federal data. This figure conveys only a fraction of the area impacted by coal production, as it does not include lands mined after 1977. But no inventory of sites mined after this date is currently available.

Data center

This data center at left could get its electricity from a solar project proposed for a site near the Wise County Airport in Southwest Virginia. Photo by Gerald Collins.

“There are thousands of [abandoned mine land] features across Appalachia that still need to be addressed,” say Adam Wells, economic diversification program coordinator at Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper. “These sites are liabilities in many ways, but they are also opportunities for a new approach to economic development in Appalachia.”

Yet determining who is responsible for recovering mined lands to a condition similar to how they were before mining — a process known as reclamation — and for making these lands useful again is a complicated issue.

Paying for Cleanup

On Aug. 3, 1977, the U.S. Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which established the legislation that continues to regulate coal mining today.

The law created the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and established its mission. One of the agency’s programs governs the cleanup of abandoned mine lands, a term that refers to mine sites excavated before the passage of SMCRA. To pay for this, the law created the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which is financed by a tax on every ton of coal mined.

Another program oversees environmental regulations for coal mines that started after the passage of SMCRA. The law outlines how companies should reclaim the land and gives the agency the authority to ensure companies can pay for the remediation.

The ability to cleanup the sites mined in the 40 years since the passage of the federal law has been threatened by two related issues: bankruptcies and bonding.

Believing that China’s demand for coal would continue to grow, beginning in 2011 many United States coal companies purchased more mines of metallurgical coal — which is used to make steel — than they could afford, including mines in Appalachia.

When Chinese demand and the price for the coal collapsed, so did the companies that bought the mines. Three of the largest American coal companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past year; Alpha Natural Resources filed in August 2015, followed by Arch Coal in January 2016 and Peabody Energy in April.

volunteers

Students from Appalachian State University plant seedlings on a surface mine in Eastern Kentucky. Photo by Kylie Schmidt

While the executives of these companies were well compensated, the corporations’ obligations for miners’ pensions and for reclamation of mine sites often went unfunded. As of April, Peabody has $1.4 billion in unfunded reclamation needs, Alpha has $640 million and Arch Coal $485 million, according to the Washington Post.

Bankruptcy settlements have addressed only part of these debts. For example, in February 2016, regulators in Wyoming agreed to accept $75 million to forgive a reclamation debt of $485 million, according to the Associated Press. The remaining cleanup costs could fall to taxpayers.

And on Nov. 16, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection sued Alpha Natural Resources for fraud, alleging that the company’s executives knowingly hid $100 million in debts in order to secure their bankruptcy settlement.

“There is no doubt that the newly disclosed $100 million shortfall seriously threatens the reorganized debtors’ viability and ability to perform their legal obligations to bond and reclaim their remaining mine site,” the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection filing stated.

At issue in all of these unfunded obligations is a practice called self-bonding. Before a mining permit is issued, federal law requires mining operators to provide a financial guarantee — or bond — large enough to cover the cost of cleanup after mining is complete. But rather than requiring a company to secure this money from an outside source, many states allow companies to self-bond. This means that they can use their own financial history as a guarantee for their ability to pay for reclamation.

This practice has come under scrutiny after so many coal companies filed for bankruptcy while responsible for billions of dollars in unfunded cleanup costs.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began a rulemaking process in August 2016 to require a more robust analysis and review process before allowing companies to use self-bonding.

Other forms of paying for reclamation after mining also carry risks. Several states, including Kentucky and Virginia, allow companies to use a financial structure called a “pool bond.” In this model, several companies each pay a fraction of their expected cleanup costs into a common pool, out of which reclamation costs can be paid should any of the companies go bankrupt.

This system can support individual bankruptcies, but “the fund is completely unprepared to address the increasingly likely scenario that multiple operators holding multiple permits will decide that they can’t or won’t follow through on their reclamation commitments,” states a blog by Peter Morgan, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program.

A Case for RECLAIM

However, none of these issues impact mine lands abandoned before the passage of the federal law. For sites mined before 1977, funding sources for reclamation work are well established, if limited.

“In the early years, the [Abandoned Mine Land] program focused on the physical reclamation of hazards affecting coalfield communities,” states the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement website. “More recently, the program began working to reclaim the vitality of communities left impoverished and degraded by past coal mining.”

The RECLAIM Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Congressman Hal Rogers (R-Ky) that is currently before the U.S. Congress, would create economic opportunities in areas historically impacted by coal mining. The bill would accelerate the release of $1 billion from taxes already paid by coal companies and invest the funds in projects such as restoring abandoned mine lands to beneficial use.

map

A new study shows the potential of 14 abandoned mine land sites in Southwest Virginia to contribute to the local economy.
Click to enlarge.

The economic development potential of 14 abandoned mine land sites in a seven-county region of Southwest Virginia was highlighted in a November report produced by Appalachian Voices, the regional nonprofit that produces this newspaper, Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm, and Coal Mining Engineering Services, a consulting firm specializing in coal mining and reclamation work.

With funding from the RECLAIM Act, the report concludes, these sites could be repurposed to better serve the area through ecotourism, agriculture, renewable energy and commercial development.

The goals of the study were to demonstrate the need for RECLAIM funding and recommend sustainable projects that could create good jobs on former coal mines.

“One of our hopes for this report is to offer place-based, forward-thinking economic development opportunities that reverse the trends of extraction by investing in historically coal-reliant communities,” says report co-author Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices.

According to Gerald Collins, a co-author of the report and owner of Coal Mining Engineering Services, LLC, there are about 50,000 acres of identified abandoned mine lands in the seven-county area. Other coal mining states in Appalachia have even more acres of impacted lands.

“The problems are just as real [in Southwest Virginia] as they are in Kentucky and West Virginia and Pennsylvania,” Collins says.

Abandoned mine land sites are classified by OSMRE based on their level of risk to human health and safety. Priority 1 sites pose an extreme danger to human health and safety, while Priority 2 sites pose a danger to human health and safety but not an extreme one. Priority 3 sites pose environmental risks, but do not directly threaten human health and safety.

mine portal

All of the sites in the new study have coal mining features, such as this abandoned underground mine portal at a proposed recreational site in Haysi. Photo by Libby Bringner

The federal law requires that Priority 1 and 2 sites must be cleaned up before funds are used to reclaim Priority 3 sites. Because there is a shortage of funds, many Priority 3 sites remain underutilized. But Collins notes that “with the RECLAIM Act, you’re looking at specifically money for [abandoned mine land] sites that have economic development potential.”

One example highlighted in the study is a proposed solar installation on more than 400 acres of land near the Wise County Airport. Much of this land was re-mined and reclaimed since SMCRA, but several Priority 3 features remain, including a mine opening portal, that would make the parcels eligible for RECLAIM funding.

This project already has backing from several local agencies that are eager to provide renewable energy to the area’s growing information technology industry cluster. According to the November report, the land could support a 20-megawatt solar installation and provide more than 200 local full-time jobs during construction and three permanent positions after construction.

“There’s a lot of potential,” Evan Fedorko of Downstream Strategies says. “[Some] folks just aren’t looking for the potential, but they’re just continuing to be discouraged or despondent about [unreclaimed areas]. And there’s a lot of potential there.”

Fedorko is particularly interested in seeing some of the mine lands reused for agricultural purposes. He says that he has encountered the misperception that all former mine land sites are unsafe for agriculture, but he insists that this is not true and that testing is available to ensure that no hazardous materials are present on a site.

The Foxfire Farm in Dickenson County is an example. Portions of the 110-acre farm were mined during the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. According to the study, some of the land was mined after the passage of SMCRA, but before Virginia established its Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. As such, it falls in an “interim period” and is not eligible for RECLAIM funding as the bill is currently worded.

“My property is clearly representative of the mass majority of land that has been strip mined and reclaimed,” says Tammy Owens, the owner of Foxfire Farm. “Even after almost 50 years, the land is unproductive and nowhere near what it was before it was mined.”

Foxfire Farm

Tammy Owens’ Foxfire Farm at left is on former mine lands that could benefit from an investment from the RECLAIM Act. Photo by Adam Wells.

If funding were available, Owens says she would use the money to restore the topsoil to support the farm’s organic production of cultivated and wild-simulated medicinal herbs.

The authors of the report make several recommendations, including that the wording of the RECLAIM Act should be modified so that some abandoned mine lands that were re-mined after 1977 could be eligible to apply for funding.

Such an expansion of eligibility would increase the pool of potential sites that could be repurposed for economic development. It would also provide a chance for reclamation at sites that have fallen through the cracks.

Restoring Forestland

Before they were mined for coal, most Appalachian peaks and slopes were covered in forests. And many scientists, government officials and environmental advocates hope to see reforestation as part of future reclamation plans.

Leading these efforts is the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, a coalition of citizens, industry and government representatives within the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The initiative was established in 2004 with the goal of reforesting mine lands in the eastern United States.

Dr. Patrick N. Angel is a senior forester and soil scientist at the agency and a liaison to ARRI. But he began his career as a reclamation inspector for the state of Kentucky and became a federal inspector in 1978 after the passage of SMCRA.

“Before the federal law, trees were growing very, very well on mine sites. But we had this problem of landslides,” says Angel. To eliminate the risk of landslides, SMCRA called for mine lands to be stabilized. But these compacted surfaces were ill-suited for growing the native trees that had existed prior to mining.

“Basically, it created a landscape that could not return to a healthy, productive forest without serious human mitigation.”

reforestation

This 20-year-old research plot demonstrates the success of Forestry Reclamation Approach. Photo by Matt Barton

Angel followed this approach until nearly two decades ago, when one of his forestry professors helped him realize that the choice needn’t be between safety or trees. It was possible to have both.

Angel says that he and about a dozen other foresters, soil scientists, mining engineers and hydrologists decided to try and change how things had been done for more than 25 years. He recalls his thoughts from that time: “We got to get the mining industry to change the way they are doing reclamation. We’ve got to change the culture of what people think good reclamation looks like. It’s not golf courses, okay. It’s something altogether different.”

Angel and his colleagues were introduced to the Forestry Reclamation Approach, which is now advocated by ARRI and its nonprofit partner Green Forests Work. This method provides guidelines for re-establishing healthy forests on formerly mined lands by establishing a thick layer of loose topsoil, minimizing competition from invasive species and carefully planting select varieties of trees.

In 2007, researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland determined that more than 740,000 acres of previously mined land in the Eastern United States are suitable for reforestation. While the process is expensive — costing $1000-$1500 per acre, according to Angel — Green Forests Work has planted almost two million trees on nearly 3,000 acres since 2009.

“Up to a million acres of these [former mine] lands could be reforested and a lot of the acres are slopes that you can’t develop and build on, you can’t build roads to, there’s a lot of areas that make more sense to put back into a healthy productive forest,” says Angel.

Citizen Site Inspections

In late August 2016, representatives of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Tennessee Chapter Sierra Club and Tennessee Clean Water Network participated in inspections at four mine sites in Claiborne County. The inspections took place near Straight Creek, Tackett Creek and several unnamed tributaries, where mining operators had requested a bond release.

As a mining company completes the reclamation process, it applies for a return of the money put forward to cover the cost of cleaning up the site. According to federal rules, the release of a bond occurs in phases as the company completes different stages of reclamation.

SMCRA requires mining companies to announce in local papers when they are requesting a bond release. Environmental groups in Tennessee monitor local papers in areas being mined so that citizens can participate in the process, as is allowed by law.

site inspection

Axel Ringe, conservation chair of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, takes a water sample at an inspection of a mine site. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Chapter of Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment

According to Axel Ringe, the conservation chair of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club who participated in the site inspections, the group confirmed that the regrading had been done properly, took water samples from sediment ponds and checked that the vegetation species and survival rates met the reclamation plan.
“The purpose of doing this is to get the local community people involved in the process, because they’re the ones that are most directly impacted by the mining,” Ringe says.

Carol Judy, a local community member, participated in the inspection because of her desire for clean water. “I’ve always felt like your water data is trackable, and it’s factual,” she says. “And it gives a body a way to look at long-term water quality impacts through several different lenses.”

Following the inspection of the Claiborne mine sites, the groups submitted their concerns to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. But as of press time in late November, they had not heard back on the status of the bond release.

Looking Ahead

After more than half a century of surface mining, few in the coal-bearing regions of Appalachia are unaffected by reclamation issues.

A resident of Dickenson County, Va., who asked not to be named because he lacked permission from all landowners to speak about the site, described his frustration after working unsuccessfully for 10 years to get the effects of mining on his property cleaned up.

Remembering how his land was once used for pasture, and dreaming of how it might one day be used for wind or solar energy generation, he says he just wants something to pass on to his grandchildren.

“It’s not too much,” he says, “but at one time it was beneficial. Now it’s a wasteland.”

Repurposing Virginia’s Abandoned Coal Sites

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

amlstudy_cover“Healing Our Land, Growing Our Future,” a groundbreaking new report, was released on Nov. 1 by Appalachian Voices, Coal Mining Engineering Services, LLC, and Downstream Strategies.

The report imagines a new future for seven counties in far Southwest Virginia. Its authors propose forward-thinking projects — such as solar energy and organic farms — for 14 abandoned mine lands sites that could be possible if Congress passes the RECLAIM Act.

The act is a bipartisan piece of legislation that would invest $1 billion to revitalize the economies of areas historically impacted by the coal industry.

“There’s enormous momentum building at the local level to reclaim these lands for a more sustainable economic future, but we need federal investment to bring that change swiftly,” says Adam Wells, our Economic Diversification Program Coordinator. Read more about the report beginning on page 10.

Mine Reclamation Pilot Program Breaks Ground

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Eliza Laubach

Workers, including former coal miners, are cleaning up decades of coal waste at an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania, funded by special appropriations from Congress. In August, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited the Ehrenfield Abandoned Mine Reclamation Project to celebrate the pilot project of the $90 million Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization program.

At this particular site, 2.4 million yards of coal waste remains from past mining operations, endangering residents who live within 500 feet of the pile, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. The mine reclamation is part of a three-year project that will also enhance access to the “Path of the Flood” trail in an effort to increase ecotourism.

This program reflects the goals of the RECLAIM Act, a bipartisan bill now before Congress that aims to develop local economies while reclaiming abandoned mine lands. The Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization program is funding similar projects in West Virginia and Kentucky, which have yet to begin.

Revitalizing Appalachia from the ground up

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016 - posted by thom

Proposing grassroots principles for the RECLAIM Act

Citizens share ideas about diversifying the local economy at a public forum last fall in Wise County, Va., hosted by Appalachian Voices.

Citizens share ideas about diversifying the local economy at a public forum last fall in Wise County, Va., hosted by Appalachian Voices.

Back in February, a bill was introduced in Congress that would expedite funding to clean up old coal mining sites and redevelop them with a specific goal of fostering economic growth in surrounding communities.

It was a turning point in the unfolding narrative about the future of Appalachia, and we have been working ever since to pass the RECLAIM Act.

The bill is in committee and the language is expected to change a bit in the coming weeks. As Congress considers those changes, lawmakers should look to communities impacted by the coal industry, in Appalachia and across the country, whose perspective is vital to the RECLAIM Act’s success.

As it currently stands, the bill would distribute $1 billion over five years to states and tribes to clean up abandoned mine lands while promoting economic development. The funding comes from an existing pot of money, the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, comprised of coal company fees paid over the past 40 years.

Most coal mine sites that closed prior to the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 were never properly cleaned up, and present environmental and public health risks. The RECLAIM Act aims to create innovative economic opportunities by addressing historic environmental problems in communities with significant economic distress. The bill could put laid-off miners and other local residents to work reclaiming abandoned mines in ways that develop long-term economic opportunities in agriculture, recreational tourism, renewable energy and more.

The town of Coeburn in Wise County, Va.

The town of Coeburn in Wise County, Va.

It’s a “win-win-win” approach if ever there was one. And it’s just the right thing to do. The bill’s patron, Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, agrees. “We decided that whatever we did would have to be sprung from within,” Rogers told The New York Times.

There are now nine Republicans, including Rogers, as well as six Democrats sponsoring the RECLAIM Act, which closely resembles a White House proposal that is unanimously supported by more than two dozen local governments in Central Appalachia. Appalachian Voices is working with regional allies, including Appalachian Citizens Law Center and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, to pass the RECLAIM Act, as are national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club.

I won’t spend time explaining why some of these folks typically don’t get along; calling them “strange bedfellows” will have to do. Yet our differences have not been enough to stop our momentum, much of which is based on a shared belief that how RECLAIM Act funding is allocated, and what projects get funded, must come from the communities.

Appalachian coal producing states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Alabama — would each receive millions of dollars under the RECLAIM Act to clean up mine sites, but only some. The estimated funds needed to clean up all abandoned mine lands in those six states is well into the billions of dollars. So deciding which sites are chosen, and what economic development projects are pursued, is paramount.

As the House Natural Resources Committee starts markup on the bill this month, Appalachian Voices and other public interest groups offer these principles as the foundation for the bill’s language:

  • In order to be successful, the RECLAIM Act must improve the quality of life for people and communities affected by economic disruption, environmental damage and inequality.
  • The bill should foster inclusion, participation and collaboration, from the White House to communities directly affected by reclamation projects.
  • The goal of the bill should be to generate stable, family-sustaining, meaningful jobs and broad access to opportunities and benefits.
  • The bill should promote innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.
  • The bill should continue to meet the goals of the Abandoned Mine Lands program, which are to protect and restore public health and our environment.
  • With the RECLAIM Act, as with all of our economic diversification work, we must respect the past while also strengthening communities and culture.

(Read the full set of principles and criteria.)

It’s possible the bill will not live up to these principles. In the past, some state agencies have failed to seek out ideas and input from community members, or have done so after the fact, having already decided on important issues. And in the past, those decisions have sometimes been influenced by politics, and reclamation funding has gone to wealthier areas, and to out-of-state corporations, instead of where it is most needed.

The RECLAIM Act offers people who care about our region a critical opportunity to improve communities throughout Appalachia, and I believe it will. We will push every step of the way to ensure the bill is as strong as it should be so that when it passes, communities are in the strongest possible position to control their own future.

New SWVa project shows top spots for turning old coal mines into economic drivers

Monday, June 20th, 2016 - posted by cat

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.45.15 PM

Contact:
Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Coordinator
(o) 276-679 1691, (m) 804-240-4372, adam@appvoices.org

Norton, VA — Appalachian Voices today released preliminary findings in an ongoing review of abandoned coal mine lands in Southwest Virginia to identify the best potential sites for reclamation and redevelopment for positive economic benefit for the region.

The nonprofit organization partnered with two expert consulting firms, Coal Mining Engineering Services and Downstream Strategies, to design and implement the analysis of 500 sites officially designated as “abandoned mine lands” (AML) by federal and state regulators. The initial findings released today narrow down the field of eligible sites to 21, scattered across seven counties in Southwest Virginia.

“This project brings a new way of thinking to the old problem of what to do with our region’s abandoned mine lands,” says Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Coordinator with Appalachian Voices. “We’re using this study to connect existing ideas from communities across the area with new funding sources to create new economic activity while improving the environment.”

Among the potential projects the joint team is considering for the sites are solar farms, community parks, forestry operations and permaculture farms with closed-loop systems that integrate waste back into improving the soil for growing organic crops.

The team evaluated the hundreds of AML sites based on a variety of criteria. It reached out to local planners to find sites that are already earmarked for some level of redevelopment activity. The team also assessed sites for proximity to population centers, transportation, and utilities infrastructure and markets. Finally, the team evaluated sites based on potential eligibility specifically for funding from the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation introduced this year by Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers and co-sponsored by Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith, along with several other Appalachian lawmakers. The bill would expedite expenditure of $1 billion from the existing Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which would be in addition to the fund’s annual allotment already coming to Southwest Virginia for mine reclamation.

The next step of the analysis will be a deeper assessment of each of the sites for its suitability for a variety of economic activities such as recreation and parks, renewable energy production, agroforestry, agriculture, and business or industrial park development.

The study was launched earlier this year, and the team expects to complete the final report this fall, which will be distributed to local, regional, state and federal entities to help further the growing conversation around economic diversification in Southwest Virginia.

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RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Federal efforts could boost local economies, repair environmental damages

By Molly Moore

A rare bipartisan proposal aims to tackle two pressing issues related to the flailing coal industry — the need for new economic opportunities in central Appalachia and repairing environmental damage from decades of mining.

In March, nine grassroots advocates from Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives and staff from the White House and federal agencies. The week’s events were coordinated by The Alliance For Appalachia, a coalition of 15 environmental and community organizations including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

The top priority was to inform regional legislators about the RECLAIM Act — a bill that intends to breathe new life into struggling central Appalachian economies while remediating land and water polluted by decades-old abandoned mines.


    The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder

Congressional Cooperation

In February of this year, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, introduced the RECLAIM Act with the support of congressmen from both parties — Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). The RECLAIM Act would accelerate payments from the existing federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, dispersing $1 billion over five years to projects that would reclaim former mining sites while boosting local economic development.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.[/caption]Jack Kennedy, clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and Norton, Va., and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, says that the RECLAIM Act could lead to solar utility projects on abandoned mines and other endeavors.

“The RECLAIM Act passage would provide Appalachian community jobs immediately working to ameliorate brownfield real estate into a productive state for commercial or agricultural or other productive purposes over a period of time,” he wrote in an email.

The bill’s support from legislators like Rogers and Griffith — staunch opponents of environmental regulation, which they allege is responsible for Appalachia’s poor coal market — signals a willingness to cooperate with the administration to provide economic and community development in areas that have depended on the coal industry.

Under the RECLAIM Act, $1 billion from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund would be directed to qualifying states and tribes over a five-year period starting in 2017. The AML fund was established in 1977 to restore land and water contaminated by coal mines that were abandoned before the federal surface mining law took effect that year. The AML program is funded by a per-ton fee on coal production, and the money is distributed based on a state or tribe’s current coal production rather than the amount of damaged land and water.

Protect Our Water, Reclaim Our Future

Join The Alliance for Appalachia in Washington, D.C., to speak with legislators and decision-makers June 5-8. For more information, email Alannah@TheAllianceForAppalachia.org.


Presently, the AML fund holds $2.5 billion that is not dedicated toward specific projects, though the interest helps support a pension fund for roughly 100,000 retired union miners. This $2.5 billion was intended as a reserve fund for states to use after 2021, when the AML program is set to expire — the RECLAIM Act would expedite the disbursal of $1 billion from that pot.

According to a July 2015 report by the AML Policy Priorities Group, directing $200 million annually to abandoned mine lands projects for five years would bring national economic benefits of 3,117 jobs and contribute close to $500 million to the United States economy. The researchers, affiliated with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia, estimated that central Appalachia would see about 35 percent of those benefits. They called for allocating the $1 billion in a way that differs from the RECLAIM Act by also considering economic distress. Such a formula would further boost the benefits for the area.

Even enacting RECLAIM with the current formula could be a powerful catalyst. “By expanding the scope of the AML program to consider economic benefits, Rogers and his colleagues have introduced a forward-thinking solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our region today,” Kennedy wrote in a March op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The fact that the bill continues to gain bipartisan support is noteworthy and speaks to the urgent need for creative approaches to the economic woes of our coal regions.”

Community Support

The premise of the RECLAIM bill is based on one of the components of the president’s POWER-Plus Plan. The plan was first introduced as part of the president’s 2016 budget proposal and was reintroduced for the 2017 budget.

POWER-Plus received a warm welcome from local governments and community groups in the region, many of which were already working to diversify the historically coal-dependent economy. Twenty-eight local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the economic revitalization package, including 12 entities in Rogers’ home district.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy The Alliance for Appalachia

Among those were the Benham Town Council and the Benham Power Board, a municipally owned utility. In early 2016, Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., and member of the Benham Power Board, wrote to Rogers and asked the congressman to help secure the funding needed to implement the POWER-Plus Plan. Citing the local declarations of support, he wrote, “As the resolutions say, we believe our transition should be one that ‘celebrates culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores the land, air and water.’”

Lawmakers incorporated some of the president’s plan in their one-year federal budget for 2016 including a proposal by Rogers to direct $90 million in AML funding to projects with economic potential in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the three states with the highest remaining costs for cleaning up abandoned mines.

As of early April, the RECLAIM Act — which would go a step further with its $1 billion allocation — had an equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. As the bill picks up more backers, a number of regional stakeholders are paying attention to how the bill is structured, and how the federal funds would be distributed.

“The Alliance [for Appalachia] is working to ensure that a strong public engagement process is included in RECLAIM,” Economic Transition Coordinator Lyndsay Tarus wrote in an email. “If the intent of the legislation is to boost economic transition, then communities most in need of the funding need their voices heard.”

During their March trip to Washington, D.C., the Alliance representatives also spoke with federal agency staff about the need for reliable oversight of clean water regulations, including a strong Stream Protection Rule to protect waterways from mining damage.

“The Alliance understands that meaningful and sustainable economic transition is just not possible when the basic necessity of clean water isn’t available,” Tarus states.

A POWERful Big Picture

The expedited release of abandoned mine lands dollars is one piece of a broader effort to assist central Appalachia and other communities around the country experiencing economic hardships due to coal’s decline.

In addition to the abandoned mine lands proposal, President Obama’s POWER-Plus Plan would strengthen the healthcare and pension plans for approximately 100,000 retired coal miners and their families. The Miners Protection Act, a bill to enact the pension change, is currently in the Senate. The POWER-Plus Plan also calls for two new tax credits for power plants that use carbon-capture technology.

Another core component of the plan is the proposed Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which would grant $75 million in economic development funding to the region. These funds would provide more support for former coal workers through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. An additional $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program would also clean up contaminated lands that have economic potential in formerly coal-dependent communities.

This POWER funding would help these agencies provide workforce training and bolster economic developments such as broadband access to attract new business.

In fall 2015, the Obama administration announced what it called a “down payment” on the plan — nearly $15 million in grants to kick-start some of these initiatives. So far, the grants have been allocated to strengthen Kentucky’s local food supply chain, bring agriculture to reclaimed mines in West Virginia, provide job training in fields such as technology and local food, develop community-specific economic diversification plans, create a substance abuse treatment center, and help new and existing industries capitalize on an expanding broadband network. Read more at right.

Kennedy waxes enthusiastically about the prospect for economic revitalization embodied in the RECLAIM Act and the POWER-Plus Plan. “Restoring Appalachian opportunity is essential,” he states. “We need to be among the first providing multiple 20 to 80 megawatts of small commercial-scale solar utility farms to learn and culturally accept the energy transition underway in our nation and around the globe.”

“Change is hard, but it is the only constant even for us in the more isolated mountains,” he continues. “We must adapt, improvise and overcome multiple challenges.”

As legislators, agency administrators and regional advocates work to pass these various federal economic proposals, one of the challenges for local supporters will be to make sure citizen input and priorities are reflected in the implementation of these programs.

“The key thing is citizen involvement,” says Mary Love, a Kentucky resident and member of The Alliance For Appalachia’s federal strategy team who met with legislators about the RECLAIM Act. “They have to show that they have citizen involvement in deciding what projects to fund. You can bet that we’ll be all over that.”

Grants Power Area Projects

➤ In southeast Kentucky, the POWER Initiative provided funding for the nonprofit media institution Appalshop to work with Southeast Community & Technical College and ten local employers to develop a one-year certificate program in technology. The three-track program would offer classes geared towards web coding, graphic and web design, and network infrastructure and security services. According to Ada Smith, Appalshop’s institutional development director, a formal certificate in technology would provide “a marked signifier to others that this person is interested, available and ready to work.” Smith hopes that courses will begin in fall 2017, and is optimistic that the program could be replicated at other community colleges.

➤ The Southern Appalachian Labor School in Robson, W.Va., received a planning grant to evaluate how both abandoned and reclaimed surface mines in the area might be used to provide economic benefits. “Right now we’re going to try to scope post-mining sites in the county, see what’s available, do a solar site analysis and see if it’s feasible to put in a solar farm,” says Director John David. The team will be looking at issues such as grid connectivity and cost, in addition to considering other projects like orchards and a senior living complex.

➤ The organization Friends of Southwest Virginia received a POWER Initiative grant to advance ongoing tourism, recreation and entrepreneurship projects. Among the endeavors is a new ecological education center near the Clinch River that will serve as both an educational and entrepreneurial hub. Another project will improve riverfront access from the New River to five downtown centers in Giles County. In Wise County, local tourism partners plan to create a visitors center in Norton to provide information about the region’s assets.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ecological education center supported by Friends of Southwest Virginia would be on the Guest River. Instead, the proposed center would be on the Clinch River near St. Paul. We regret the error.

Bill Aims to Boost Local Appalachian Economies

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

A bipartisan bill led by members of Congress from four Appalachian states aims to revitalize local economies in the region through the restoration of previously mined lands.

Introduced in early February by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the RECLAIM Act would amend the primary federal law regulating surface coal mining to accelerate the release of $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund over the next five years.

Projects that could be funded under the bill include land restoration for industrial, commercial, agricultural or recreational purposes that would benefit areas heavily impacted by the coal industry’s decline.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), another lead sponsor, called the legislation an “imperative effort to help reinvigorate” Appalachian communities.

— Brian Sewell