This op-ed was featured in the September 16th, 2016 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader under the title, “Where’s McConnell on Boost for Coal Country?“
The RECLAIM Act, currently before Congress, is an opportunity to create both immediate and permanent jobs in the communities facing severe economic hardship due to the loss of coal mining jobs.
It’s an exciting proposal that continues to gain traction in Congress. And as that happens it’s important that the act has the provisions to ensure, above all else, that communities feeling the hardships see the benefits.
For more than a year, the community-led movement to pass the RECLAIM Act has steadily spread throughout and beyond Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. The idea behind the bill originated in communities impacted by abandoned mines and struggling local economies.
In 2015, the White House included the policy idea in the proposed POWER+ Plan. Throughout last fall, 28 local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the proposal.
In February, Congressman Hal Rogers led a bipartisan group of legislators in introducing the RECLAIM Act. The bill would use $1 billion to put laid-off coal miners and others to work reclaiming mines and creating long-term economic opportunities.
Since the introduction of the RECLAIM Act, 17 co-sponsors — Republicans and Democrats from Tennessee to Colorado — have lined up behind the legislation.
There’s a lot to like about the RECLAIM Act. It would provide an economic shot-in-the-arm at a time when communities are reeling from massive layoffs in the coal industry. But it’s not just a temporary fix. The policy would spur economic projects in agriculture, energy, recreational tourism and more on reclaimed sites. These projects could help create permanent local jobs.
The benefits aren’t just economic either. It would clean up hundreds of environmental problems on abandoned mine lands, such as mudslides caused by abandoned surface mines and streams continuously polluted by old mines.
The $1 billion for the bill currently resides in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, money previously paid by the coal industry to reclaim land damaged by mining. The act would use this existing money to, quite literally, create economic opportunities out of environmental problems.
It’s easy to see why legislators on both sides of the aisle see the legislation as a win-win. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has publicly supported it and Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth is a co-sponsor of the bill.
It’s puzzling that Sen. Mitch McConnell and the rest of Kentucky’s congressional delegation have yet to sign on to the bill and provide this much-needed support to Kentucky’s coal communities.
The RECLAIM Act is only one piece of the effort to build a bright future in the mountains, but it could undoubtedly play a role in shaping Eastern Kentucky’s next economy.
As such, it should be guided by principles that seek to build strong, healthy communities. Principles like generating stable, meaningful jobs, fostering inclusion and collaboration, respecting our heritage and promoting innovation and broadly held local wealth.
The legislation will be best suited to achieve stated goals of growing local economies and cleaning up environmental problems if the final language includes two main provisions.
First, it should ensure economic benefits reach communities with significant economic need, and that these benefits stay in the local community.
Second, it should ensure a variety of groups — especially community members in directly impacted areas — have a voice in shaping how the program is implemented at the state level. This includes shaping the vision and priorities for what types of economic reclamation projects should be funded.
Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and a number of groups throughout the region have put together a set of Priorities for the RECLAIM Act that demonstrate why these and other provisions are needed.
September provides an opportunity to underline coal communities’ resolve for the legislation, and also to strengthen the legislation in ways that are crucial for it to achieve its explicit goals.
A billion-dollar investment in coal communities is an opportunity that isn’t afforded often — and can’t be wasted.
Eric Dixon is coordinator of policy and community engagement for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg.