Lawmakers seek $1 billion for struggling coal states

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Lawmakers from Appalachian states hit hard by a downturn in the coal industry proposed a bill Wednesday that would set aside $1 billion from a federal fund to use for economic development.
The House bill mirrors a plan laid out last year in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal that diverts money from a fund devoted to redeveloping abandoned mining sites.
Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure has bipartisan support and was crafted with help from the White House. The $1 billion taken from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund would be used for economic development – tourism, infrastructure, new business – on or near sites that have been deemed abandoned mines.
“What this bill is all about is jobs,” Rogers said in a conference call Wednesday. “We’ve got obviously a severe, severe problem in the hills of eastern Kentucky and the central Appalachian region of the country with the coal business being in such dire straits. This is an effort to get some jobs back.”
Kentucky, one of the states hardest hit by slumping coal production, would receive about $100 million over five years.
Cheaper natural gas prices along with oversupply and tougher environment enforcement has caused a drop in coal production nationally, namely in Appalachia, where mine shutdowns and bankruptcy filings have led to massive job losses.
Production in the Central Appalachian basin, which includes eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, last year was 40 percent below the average production level between 2010 and 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Production in Kentucky last year fell to its lowest level since 1954.
The abandoned mine fund has about $2.5 billion in unallocated dollars, Rogers said. It is funded by fees from coal operators, and used to restore areas impacted by long-gone mining operations.
The bill’s other sponsors are Republican Reps. Evan Jenkins of West Virginia, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, and Democrats Don Beyer of Virginia and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania.
Obama announced the plan to divert $1 billion from the abandoned mine lands fund during his budget proposal last year. Republicans, including Rogers, were skeptical but Rogers said Wednesday that the administration has been “very helpful” in crafting the bill. The bill would amend the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which dictates how mines should be restored.
Kimberly Shepherd, a Harlan County, Kentucky, resident and organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said she was glad to see “the ball start to roll in our favor.”
“I’m just as happy now that others are starting to see the potential that we see here for a just transition” from a coal-driven economy, Shepherd said in a release. “It’s been coming a long time. This gives me a lot of hope and optimism for the future.”
The proposed bill is called the RECLAIM Act, an acronym for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.

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