By Bill Estep
August 18, 2015
The number of endorsements from local governments in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere is growing for an idea to spend $1 billion over five years in an effort to help areas hurt by a sharp downturn in coal jobs.
The money would be used to repair damage to land and water from abandoned mines, with the goal of tying the reclamation work to projects that would provide a longer-term economic boost.
That could include reclaiming sites for uses such as agriculture, tourism and forestry.
The Obama administration calls the proposal the Power+ Plan. The spending would require congressional approval.
The fiscal court in Harlan County endorsed the proposal Tuesday.
Supporters said the vote was the seventh for the proposal by local governments in the Appalachian coalfields in recent weeks, joining Letcher County; Wise County, Va.; Campbell County, Tenn.; and the Kentucky cities of Whitesburg and Benham, and Norton, Va. A regional planning commission in Virginia also endorsed the proposal.
Several groups are working to line up more local government support for the proposal, according to Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, who has been active in that effort.
“We don’t expect this to be the last one,” Dixon said of the vote in Harlan County. “It’s really caught fire.”
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said he and magistrates endorsed the proposal because of its potential to help put people to work at a time when thousands have lost coal jobs.
“Our people are desperate,” said Mosley, a Democrat. “I do think it could help the county with jobs.”
The number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky and other parts of Central Appalachia has plummeted since 2011 as the regional industry has been hurt by factors that include competition from cheap natural gas — and from other coalfields — and tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality.
There are several pieces to the proposal from the Obama administration, including money for job training and help for entrepreneurs, grants and loans for infrastructure in hard-hit coal communities, and money to shore up the pension funds of tens of thousands of retired coal workers.
The $1 billion in spending would be the biggest piece of the plan, however.
The money would come from the abandoned mine land, or AML, fund. Coal companies pay a fee into the fund on each ton of coal mined.
The program is designed to fix problems such as landslides and water pollution from mining that took place before 1977, when Congress approved new surface mining and reclamation standards.
There is about $2.5 billion in the fund, according to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Most of the land that remains unreclaimed from historic mining is in Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky.
As of April, there was $461 million worth of unfunded AML projects in Kentucky, according to the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
It’s clear Obama’s proposal would not come close to reclaiming all those sites.
The $1 billion would be spent over five years and shared among about 10 coal states. The division would not be equal; some states would get much more than Kentucky.
Dixon and Kendall Bilbrey of The Alliance for Appalachia estimated in a study released last month that Central Appalachian states would get 35 percent of the money under the Power+ Plan next year.
That would create more than 700 jobs, with an estimated 253 in Eastern Kentucky and 417 in West Virginia, the study said.
The study recommended that the plan do more to target aid to the most distressed areas, such as by taking job losses into account to create more benefits in the places that need help the most.
Still, Dixon said in an interview, the proposal is an opportunity to combine environmental reclamation with economic development at a scale large enough to make a difference.
“It is enough to make a significant impact,” he said.
The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices and others are working to line up support for the proposal.
The proposal faces an uncertain fate in Congress, where Kentuckians in key positions have not endorsed Obama’s proposal on AML spending.
Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, has supported pieces of the Power+ proposal, but not all of it.
The Appropriations Committee, which Rogers chairs, has approved funding to federal agencies for programs under the proposal such as job training for laid-off miners, said Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Rogers’ office.
However, the proposal on AML spending would require significant changes to the federal surface-mining act and action by another committee, and the Obama administration did not submit legislative language early enough for consideration during the budget process in the House, Smoot said.
Rogers supports more AML money for Kentucky, and his committee included $30 million for a pilot program to see how Kentucky and other states could speed up reclamation of abandoned mine lands, with an eye toward economic and community development, Smoot said.
The legislation — which has not been approved by the Senate — also pushed back against federal environmental regulations that Rogers and many other argue have hurt the coal industry.
Any White House plan “about improving the quality of life for the people of coal country is not serious or credible without a legitimate proposal to revisit these wrong-headed, job-killing regulations,” Smoot said.
Stephanie Penn, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said McConnell also had supported millions in spending to help laid-off coal miners, including some parts of the Obama proposal.
Penn said Obama’s proposal for spending $1 billion in AML money has not come before the Senate.
McConnell thinks that any bill to help miners should be considered carefully “but that no amount of federal relief can paper over the devastating damage this president and his policies have had on coal country,” Penn said.
Mosley, the Democratic Harlan County judge-executive, said he’s been as critical of Obama’s policies affecting coal as any Republican and supports regulatory relief for the industry.
The proposal on AML money looks like an effort to help coal communities, however, he said.
“Obviously, it’s going to take a lot of money over a long period of time” to revitalize Eastern Kentucky’s economy, Mosley said. “I think this is a start.”
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.