Congress must take specific action to help coalfield communities rebound from the economic challenges that existed before COVID-19 and that continue to worsen amidst the pandemic. At the same time, actions to stimulate the economy must have the support of communities directly impacted by abandoned mine sites, including when and whether to start working in the face of COVID-19.
Fortunately, there are policies that would accomplish these goals. They include reauthorizing the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Fund well beyond fall 2021, when it’s currently set to expire, and passing the RECLAIM Act, which would appropriate current AML funds for good-paying jobs in environmental reclamation. Combined, these policies will set the stage for a longer-term path to economic diversification throughout West Virginia’s coalfield communities.
Unemployment claims across the country have already topped 22 million since President Trump declared a national emergency. In West Virginia, state officials have projected over 130,000 of our friends and neighbors filed for unemployment benefits in the last month alone. This comes on top of an already shaky 2019 where West Virginia saw more than 10,000 jobs lost, mainly in the construction, manufacturing and mining sectors. Eight out of the last twelve months saw declines in non-farm employment in West Virginia, signaling that the economy had major problems before COVID-19.
Because current job losses are more heavily concentrated in food service, accommodations and brick and mortar retail, the economic impact of COVID-19 makes a bad situation worse for working families. For coalfield communities who have seen good-paying jobs in the mining sector steadily decline, massive and rapid employment losses throughout all sectors of local economies present a significant challenge that must be addressed at the federal level.
The standard AML fund, set to expire in September 2021, provides funding for the reclamation of pre-1977 abandoned mine land. Projects funded through the AML fund vary from industrial site development to sophisticated agricultural/food sustainability projects to post-mining stream remediation that lead to recreation and tourism opportunities.
The estimated cost to reclaim these abandoned mine sites throughout West Virginia is estimated at $1.6 billion. As such, Congress should, during the next round of COVID-19 stimulus legislation, reauthorize the AML fund through 2036 to provide necessary revenue over fifteen years to complete these critical projects. With guaranteed funding from Congress approved, environmental reclamation companies will be better able hire more workers for environmental reclamation projects, almost all of which are multi-year investments to see brought to fruition.
In addition to reauthorizing the AML fund through FY 2036, Congress should make the following changes to strengthen the ability of the AML fund to deliver on its stated purpose and goals as part of any future COVID-19 stimulus package (Many of these policy proposals can be found in H.R. 4248):
By making these proactive changes to the AML Fund, Congress can lay the foundation for West Virginia communities to take on the realities of a post-coal and post-COVID-19 economy. The reclamation of abandoned mine sites and economic diversification of coalfield communities will, just like our economic recovery from COVID-19, take years to accomplish successfully.
These measures, if enacted into law, will empower West Virginia to do both.
The RECLAIM Act (HR 2156) would jump-start job creation throughout West Virginia’s coalfield communities by releasing $1 billion from the AML fund over five years for reclamation of abandoned mine sites. West Virginia’s share of this funding would be approximately $201 million over five years.
Funds from the RECLAIM Act can only be used for the reclamation of pre-1977 mine sites. The jobs pay prevailing wages and require skills that coal miners are already well-qualified in including heavy equipment and machinery operation, earth moving, and diesel mechanics.
RECLAIM Act projects have explicit guidelines mandating community buy-in and public comment. This ensures projects driving future economic development have the support of the communities where they are located.
In the wake of COVID-19, this is especially important. The federal legislative process would likely mean that potential projects would be ready to start months down the road, giving coalfield communities more time to practice social distancing measures and continue to ‘flatten the curve.’ If communities impacted by abandoned mine sites do not feel the public health consensus is there to safely resume economic activity, the stakeholder provisions of the RECLAIM Act can act as a stopgap until they feel it is safe to do so.
The RECLAIM Act is popular in West Virginia, earning the endorsement of multiple County Commissions and 40 members of the West Virginia House of Delegates. By passing the RECLAIM Act now, Congress can take a decisive and community-supported policy action that is timely with respect to the decline of coal jobs and the reality of dealing with COVID-19.
As the pandemic exacerbates the decline of coal production, Congress has a choice. They should accept the reality that neither coal-producing jobs or the economy as we knew it before COVID-19 will ever be the same. Renewing the AML fund and passing the RECLAIM Act will foster good jobs and cultivate a community-endorsed vision for economic success in the longer term for coalfield communities.
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