By Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices Senior Legislative Representative
On May 1, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed the RECLAIM Act, H.R. 2156, on a bipartisan vote. The day before, a group of Senate Democrats introduced a similar bill. The RECLAIM Act is intended to accelerate the clean-up of abandoned coal mines while creating jobs in areas hard-hit by the decline of the coal industry.
To do this, the RECLAIM Act would fast-track the spending of money that is already allocated for cleaning up abandoned coal mines, prioritizing projects that boost local economies and have local support.
Ever since the federal surface mining law went into effect in 1977, coal companies have paid a tax on coal production to pay for the reclamation of the millions of acres damaged by mines that were abandoned before the 1977 law. The fund currently has an unappropriated balance of $2.4 billion, $1 billion of which isn’t scheduled to be spent until after 2023. Starting in fiscal year 2020, the RECLAIM Act would accelerate spending of that $1 billion, distributing it to states and tribes over five years.
Across the coal-bearing mountains of Central Appalachia, communities that long depended on mining are still hurting economically from the industry’s decline. Despite President Trump’s stated optimism that coal jobs will rebound, any slight gains are likely to be short-lived — the industry’s downward slide is due to irreversible trends like the mechanization of jobs and coal’s losing competition with cheaper renewable energy and natural gas.
The RECLAIM Act provides a clear way for lawmakers to bring new jobs to these communities. It prioritizes the reclamation of sites that are connected to long-term economic projects supported by local communities, such as agriculture, renewable energy, wildlife habitat or recreational tourism projects. These endeavors would put laid-off miners – who possess the skills necessary for mine reclamation – and others to work. Government estimates show the funds could create at least 4,600 direct reclamation jobs across the country.
The bill would also give a much-needed boost to cleanup efforts at abandoned mines across the country — addressing dangerous open mine portals, water contamination from acid mine drainage, unstable slopes and other pervasive problems that have threatened communities and caused environmental damage for decades. In West Virginia alone, more than 4,000 abandoned mine land problems lack reclamation funding.
Lawmakers first introduced the RECLAIM Act in 2016, and it has gained substantial bipartisan support. Dozens of municipalities and economic development authorities across the region have also passed resolutions of support for the concept. Despite this, it has not yet become law.
Instead, Congress began appropriating funding in 2016 for a project called the AML Pilot Program, which was intended to demonstrate what could be accomplished on a wider scale with passage of the RECLAIM Act.
But the pilot program is much less detailed. As a result, the implementation of the pilot program has not always reflected the design of the RECLAIM Act, and the quality of projects funded by the pilot program varies significantly.
Under the pilot program, the allocation of funding does not require community input, while the RECLAIM Act would mandate a process for public engagement before funds are released. And while projects under the pilot program frequently include environmental remediation, they are not required to do so, whereas remediation is always required under the RECLAIM Act.
The AML Pilot Program’s shortcomings relative to the RECLAIM Act provide yet another reason to pass H.R. 2156 as soon as possible.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle often say they want to help revive working communities in rural America; the RECLAIM Act is an opportunity to do just that.
Communities across Central Appalachia have waited too long for real action from Washington. Tell your legislators to make passing the RECLAIM Act a priority this summer.