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An economy in transition

The Coal Industry is Fighting a Bipartisan Effort to Create Jobs from Abandoned Mine Land

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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.

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An economy in transition

Fact-check: Is West Virginia Poverty 5 Percent Higher than the U.S. as a Whole?

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A coal truck drives through an railroad tressel near downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Coal brought a large population to the McDowell County in the 1940's. Now the population is shrinking and the county suffers from unemployment and poverty. Photo: Jon C. Hancock/AP Photo

Kendra Fershee, a Democrat who is challenged U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., took aim at the poverty rate in a Sept. 19 Facebook post.

“Poverty in WV is more than 5% higher than the national average,” Fershee wrote in the post. “The poor are getting (much) poorer and if you look at what my opponent is posting (stories about how great the economy is, using national statistics) he doesn’t even seem to know that there’s a problem in WV.”

She added, “Are you ok with our state diving deeper into despair while our elected officials: vote for policy that drives wages lower, push to strip healthcare from poor people and people with pre-existing conditions, and then pat themselves on the back for a job well done? I’m not. This is unacceptable. But WE can fix it on Nov. 6.”

We wondered whether poverty in West Virginia is more than 5 percent higher than the national average. So we took a closer look.

The post links to a Sept. 18 article in the Parkersburg News and Sentinel headlined, “Poverty increases in W.Va.” According to the article, “About 336,000 West Virginians lived in poverty in 2017, 5.7 percent higher than the national average. West Virginia was among the top four states with poverty rates of 18 percent – Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and West Virginia.”

To confirm the newspaper’s data, we turned to the original figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers check out: The U.S poverty rate was 13.4 percent, but the West Virginia poverty rate was 19.1. The difference: 5.7 percentage points.

To be precise, however, Fershee should have said that the poverty rate in West Virginia is more than 5 percentage points higher than the United States as a whole — not 5 percent higher. If it were 5 percent higher, the poverty rate in West Virginia would be about 14.1 percent, not 19.1 percent.

So the poverty rate in West Virginia is actually higher than Fershee’s literal words suggested.

In an interview, Fershee said that it’s important to note that “the rest of the country is doing better, and West Virginia’s poverty rate has actually worsened,” said Fershee.

The historical data bears that out. Here’s a chart of the U.S. and West Virginia poverty rates going back to 2005.

In 2012, the gap between the U.S. and West Virginia poverty rates was 1.9 percentage points. Five years later, the gap was 5.7 points.

Our ruling

Fershee said, “Poverty in WV is more than 5% higher than the national average.”

Only a slip-up in her mathematical terminology keeps this from being fully accurate. The poverty rate in West Virginia was 5.7 percentage points higher than the national rate, not more than 5 percent higher.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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An economy in transition

On Trump’s Promise to Bring Back Coal, These Retired Union Miners Say: ‘We Can’t Live in the Past’

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Outside of the United Mine Workers of America Local 1440 in Matewan, five retired coal miners are sitting in a semi-circle to talk politics, coal and the new president. 

In the 2016 presidential election, West Virginia voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, wooed in part by Trump’s promises to bring back jobs, particularly coal jobs. In the days following the election, there were reports of miners celebrating Trump’s win during a pause from working underground. But not everyone in Appalachia — including some miners — believe coal jobs can be brought back.

Trump’s popularity in Appalachia stands in stark contrast to the blue collar way of life seen in West Virginia’s southern coalfields — at least traditionally. For generations, Democrats tied themselves to the labor movement, including coal miners.

“The party that’s always been for the working class people,” said Bobby May, a third general coal miner. “I’ve been taught this from knee high to now — the Democratic party’s always been more tolerant to working people’s needs and civil rights.”


He points out that there’s a fair amount of differences between him and his fellow miners.

“We’re diversified [in the way we voted], but I — personally, in the primaries — voted for Bernie Sanders. I know the young people love him, but he speaks to their needs — their college tuition and the working people,” May added.

His buddies, all fellow miners from UMWA’s Local 1440, nodded. None of them voted for Trump. In fact, they said the majority of men in their local voted Democrat in both the primary and general election. They acknowledge that this is unusual for coal miners today, but also note that they are all older than many of those still working in the mines. All 800 or so of their local union members are retired.

“We try to make decisions based on facts here,” said Terry Steele, who identifies himself as the resident “tree hugger.”

“They let me say what I want to say here. What other local could you go in and speak up against them?”

Steele is probably the farthest left of the group. The back of his car boasts a sticker reading “If you love the creator respect the creation,” but he said even more conservative members of the union’s local chapter agree that coal is effectively gone from Matewan.

He points in the direction of a nearby Norfolk and Southern railroad track that was torn out a few years ago and then paved over at the railroad crossing.

“You think Obama had them to do that?” asks Steele, a retiree of the bankrupt company Horizon. “That wasn’t Obama that done that! Capitalism done that.”

Union miners from Horizon, like those from Patriot Coal and other bankrupt companies, are at risk of losing their health benefits if Congress doesn’t act by April 30.

“The reserves are gone here so don’t lie to us about things. Tell us the truth! We would love to have 800 energy workers here in our union. So don’t lie to us about jobs that are never coming back. They’re not coming back,” Steele said.

Danny White, one of the quieter members of the group, finally chimes in.

“I don’t know where the Republicans get their idea the coal’s going to boom because, when it’s been depleted, it don’t grow back,” White said.

To be sure, there is still coal in southern West Virginia. In Mingo County, specifically, there are two coal beds. The Fire Clay bed has about 86 percent of the original coal left and Pond Creek has about 89 percent, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But there’s a difference between producible coal and profitable coal. A lot of the easy, lucrative reserves have already been mined.    

But Frank Collins, the Local 1440 president, believes no matter how much coal is left, the region’s economy can’t survive forever on just one industry.

Collins makes note of the campaign rhetoric that came from Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He notes a moment when Clinton said she wanted to retrain miners — a soundbite that was often overshadowed in the media when she spoke of putting “coal companies out of business.”

“Everybody got mad over that one and Trump told them what they want to hear so we’ll see. And we’ve not seen anything yet and I’m sure he’ll make a liar out me,” said Collins.

He wishes Trump the best and hopes the new administration “makes a liar” out him for being skeptical of the promise to bring mining jobs back. But, for Collins and other at the Local 1440, it’s not a Democrat or Republican thing in regards to the economy.

“We’ve got to have change, you can’t live in the past,” Collins added.

Many in the coal industry have said Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency regulations are to blame for the loss of coal jobs. Collins and the other miners at the Local 1440 don’t agree.

“They use the rules and regulations as an excuse,” said White.

May, on the other hand, attributes coal’s downturn — at least in part — to low prices of natural gas.

“Let’s face it. They can make more profit out of gas than they can coal miners because that’s so many more coal miners versus just a handful of workers once they sink these wells,” he said.

Collins has a much darker observation of the economic downturn in southern West Virginia’s coalfields.

“They raped our area and left — filed bankruptcy so they wouldn’t have to pay the hospital card or pensions,” said the union’s local chapter president about the companies who once provided good paying jobs with benefits to the area. “They’ll have nothing else to do with area. We’re left here trying to rebuild our community and they’re gone.”

The men at Local 1440 are proud of their community and are trying to diversify the local economy through improving infrastructure and promoting tourism. They point to the Mine Wars Museum and the Hatfield-McCoy trail as pillars of success. Still yet, they recognize an older way of thinking — one that put coal above all else — has brought their community’s economic situation to a head.

“Why are we last in everything that’s good and good in everything that’s last — if coal was so good, you know? If it’s so good why are we like that?” Steele asks. But that question isn’t rhetorical, at least not in his mind. He has an answer to his own inquiry.

“We put our eggs in one basket is bad enough, but the basket had a hole in the bottom of it, too.”

Now, these miners of Matewan are just hoping for economic development that will bring jobs — hopefully good jobs — to Mingo County.

“We would be very acceptable to anybody, anything that would provide jobs to our children, our grandchildren in my case. We hosted a fair and people came in and talked to us about solar, they talked to us about wind and doing studies,” said Jim Simpkins.

But until they have a political champion that will advocate for jobs other than coal, Simpkins and his friends at Local 1440 say Matewan — and the coalfields in general —  will to continue to suffer.

“It is going to take a combination of solar, hydro, water, coal, gas, it’s going to take a combination of all of them to make us energy efficient again — or make us energy independent again. That’s United States-wise, not just southern West Virginia,” said Simpkins.

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