With bipartisan support and a focus on economic development in coal country, the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act was supposed to fly through Congress. Instead — mostly due to heavy lobbying by the coal industry — it has been stalled for nearly two years, leaving abandoned mine land in ruin and communities wondering how to move forward with post-coal economies.
So last week, when the bill passed through the U.S. House’s Natural Resources Committee, environmental groups and bill sponsors throughout Appalachia were relieved. The legislation, which would allow $1 billion in available funding to be fast-tracked to the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund over five years, has an amendment requiring developers to have an economic development plan included in the reclamation proposal.
“Not only would this reclaim land and put out of work miners back to work reclaiming land with the skills they have, the economic development [aspect] would provide sustainable employment, boost to local economies, tax dollars, as well as current and future jobs,” said Sarah Bowling, a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member from Pike County who has lobbied Congress in support of the RECLAIM Act.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which grew out of concerns over environmental degradation and pollution from strip mining, established the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and created regulations for regulating surface mines and reclaiming closed or abandoned mines. The Abandoned Mine Land fund uses fees paid by coal companies to reclaim mine land abandoned before 1977, set standards for future closed coal mines and to post bonds if companies don’t reclaim land.
According to the Department of Interior, to date, coal companies have paid $9.2 billion in fees to the AML fund to reclaim land, and it has accrued $1.5 billion in interest which is used to pay for miner’s union healthcare. About $2.5 billion of that fund is left. It will take upwards of $9.6 billion to reclaim the more than 6 million acres of lands and waters, according to 2015 data from the Appalachian Citizens Law Center. But without reauthorization, the AML program will expire in 2021.
In 2015, the Obama administration proposed the POWER+ Plan, a $10 billion initiative to help struggling coal communities diversify their economies. It allocated $90 million for mine reclamation pilot projects in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky and set goals for carbon capture and storage, healthcare for retired and out-of-work coal miners and workforce development. In February 2016, a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Kentucky Republican U.S. Representative Hal Rogers, introduced the RECLAIM Act. It was introduced in the Senate in December 2016 by a group of senators led by U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The RECLAIM bill from last year’s session had the economic development aspect, but it drew opposition from western states who don’t see a need to focus on economic development as much as Appalachian coal communities do. It also was heavily lobbied by the National Mining Association, an industry group that wants to overhaul federal mine cleanup efforts. Environmental groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth said this year’s watered down version was not substantial.
Without the amendment, Bowling said, the bill isn’t as effective. “It doesn’t do as much good to reclaim land and leave it,” she added. “It’s safer for humans and property, it removes hazardous material — and that’s great — but that only provides employment in very short term capacity.”
Representative Don Beyer of Virginia reintroduced that economic development amendment before it was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee. The bill will move onto the House. It’s a step, but “now the real fight begins,” Bowling said.
The National Mining Association is still lobbying hard to get rid of the RECLAIM Act, and the Abandoned Mine Land fund along with it.
In late July, the group sent a letter to lawmakers arguing against it. “We oppose the Reclaim Act because it perpetuates a misuse of funds for purposes that, while worthy, have nothing to do with reclaiming high priority abandoned coal mines – yet all with little accounting,” said Luke Popovich, vice president for external communications for NMA said in an email. “Only a fraction of the almost $11 billion that mining has paid into the AML fund has been [used to] fit the fund’s intended purpose.”
There is some truth to the claim that AML funds have not been used properly: Earlier this year, a Department of Interior Office of Inspector General report revealed that the OSMRE has been giving too much leeway to states in how they use federal money to reclaim those millions of acres, resulting in the misuse of funds.
That’s partially why the economic development amendment in the RECLAIM Act is important, advocates say. Rogers, who is still leading the bill, has said he’s “disheartened” by the NMA’s opposition. “A vote in favor of the RECLAIM Act is a vote to rescue coal country – and it’s the right thing to do,” he said in a statement.
Many powerful lawmakers in the House and Senate support the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In Appalachia, most people support it, too. Last year, the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy surveyed over 1,000 respondents and found that 87 percent of voters in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia supported the RECLAIM Act.
However, the Trump administration’s standing is less clear. Trump has repeatedly claimed he will put miners back to work and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has loosened regulations on coal companies to be more industry-friendly.
In his 2018 budget proposal, Trump proposed eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), providing it with only $27 million to support the “orderly closure” of it. The commission is a primary engine for economic development initiatives and workforce training throughout Appalachia, including programs that involve the AML fund. A recently introduced bill in the House would only cut the agency’s $152 million budget by 14 percent, to $130 million.
Without the extra funds, communities across Appalachia have been trying to spur economic growth using abandoned mine land. In Southwest Virginia, reclaimed mine land was used to start a winery in the early 2000s. In eastern Kentucky, a renewable energy company and a coal company are partnering to build a solar farm on an old strip mine. Developers in Mingo County, West Virginia are working on creating an aquaponics farm to grow vegetables and raise fish on former mine land. And in Pennsylvania, an abandoned coal mine was used to create a commerce and trade park that employs 4,500 people.
Right now, these types of projects are still in the early stages, so the fast-tracked federal funding for economic development could help spur growth, advocates say. “I don’t think [the RECLAIM Act] will solve all the economic problems with Appalachia, but it is a fantastic first step in that direction for that transition,” Bowling said. “It shows Appalachia that yes, the government is doing something to try to help you out.”
Lyndsey Gilpin (@lyndseygilpin) is a contributing editor of 100 Days in Appalachia based in Louisville, Kentucky. She is also the editor of Southerly, a newsletter covering the American South.