Recently, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act. The bill is a comprehensive infrastructure package that includes public money for broadband, water systems, renewable energy investments, and two critical components that would support well-paying jobs and the revitalization of coalfield communities across the country– the RECLAIM Act and the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Fund.
The RECLAIM Act would release $1.6 billion from the AML Fund to jumpstart the reclamation of mine land abandoned before 1976. In West Virginia, the RECLAIM Act would make available approximately $200 million over five years to support reclamation projects. Meanwhile, renewal of the AML Fund would ensure that funding for valuable reclamation jobs stays consistent for years to come.
Not long ago, we explored why passage of these initiatives makes sense in the face of a global pandemic. Significant investments in coalfield communities via the reclamation of abandoned mine land could also pay dividends in those regions of West Virginia that are predisposed to struggle with the social determinants of health. This is achieved by directing dollars toward areas that have higher historical poverty rates and greater percentages of unemployment due to the legacy of extractive industries.
Long before the pandemic, West Virginia struggled with job losses, and coalfield communities have been hit especially hard. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of coal mining jobs decreased from 23,111 to 13,382 in West Virginia, a 42.1 percent decline. More recently, multiple coal company bankruptcies and the global shift toward renewable energy have made coal less competitive than cheaper, more abundant natural gas. Significant recent investments in renewables from states and major companies have made the decline of the coal industry even more imminent.
The generational boom and bust economics of mining has taken a toll on both the land of the coalfields and its people. A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that West Virginia’s five unhealthiest counties are all located in the southern coalfields. The report specifically claims, “Nonclinical factors, like environment, poverty and job availability, have a real impact on our health.”
Environment, poverty, and job availability are all social determinants of health that the RECLAIM Act and reauthorization of the AML Fund are poised to improve through the use of federal dollars to create much-needed jobs cleaning up environmentally hazardous abandoned mine land.
Abandoned mine lands are well known for causing environmental problems, including ground water contamination and toxic waste emission, both of which harm the health of communities.
Southern West Virginia’s problems with access to clean drinking water are well-documented. Environmental reclamation of abandoned mine land can both help fix those issues at their source and provide new infrastructure so impacted communities can have access to clean drinking water, a critical component of public health.
West Virginia’s coalfield communities whose historic economic, environmental, and health problems have been exacerbated by COVID-19 need significant short-term resources to put unemployed miners back to work making wages competitive with the jobs they once had. At the same time, designated funding needs to remain available for several years to come so that communities can have the resources they need to clean up the environmental problems left behind in the wake of coal mining.
The RECLAIM Act and renewal of the AML Fund accomplish both of these goals. The $200 million West Virginia will receive in the short-term from the RECLAIM Act will provide good-paying jobs to miners who have lost work. What’s more, miners already have the necessary skills for reclamation jobs, so they can begin making valuable incomes relatively soon. The renewal of the AML Fund will provide the necessary capital over the course of years so that coalfield communities have access to the funds required to address the longstanding environmental problems that extractive industries often leave behind, such as lack of access to clean drinking water.
The historical economic and environmental problems brought about through extractive boom and bust industries will not be undone overnight. It will take significant up-front investment in the people and communities directly impacted by generations of coal mining. The RECLAIM Act and renewal of the AML Fund are the most logical starting points to provide coalfield communities with agency regarding their future economies and personal health outcomes. The United States Senate should pass both now.
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