By Tim Marema
The Daily Yonder
Clay County, which has a backlog of approximately $3.2 million in abandoned mine-land reclamation projects, could be one of 42 West Virginia counties to receive additional funding for reclamation work under a new federal proposal.
The POWER Plus proposal, part of the White House’s 2016 budget plan, would release an additional $1 billion in mine-reclamation funding to coal states over the next five years. The money would come from an existing fund that pays to restore lands damaged by mining and abandoned before the federal government began to regulate surface mining in 1977.
Under the proposal, restoration efforts would be tied to potential economic development activities, putting the reclaimed land back to use in agriculture, recreation, industry, forestry and other activities.
Advocates of the proposal say it could help hard-hit mining areas at a critical time.
“There is such great economic need in the coalfields now that a program that could distribute $1 billion would have a massive benefit,” said Eric Dixon, policy coordinator of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a group based in Whitesburg, Ky., that supports the proposal.
“No one is saying this will solve all the problems, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Clay County has $3,225,328 in reclamation projects awaiting funding, according to data from the Office of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM).
Across West Virginia, approximately $1.3 billion in restoration work is on the inventory. The expanded reclamation funding could provide up to $ 194 million over five years for West Virginia projects, according to an OSM estimate.
Besides mine-reclamation, the POWER Plus proposal includes funding from other federal agencies for job training, planning, infrastructure and other needs.
The proposal is geared to help areas like Clay County that have historically relied on the coal economy, according to Jason Walsh, senior adviser in the Executive Office of the President.
From 2010 to 2014, Clay County lost 102 jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Across West Virginia during the same period, the number of coal mining jobs dropped from roughly 20,500 to 17,900, a decline of about 13 percent.
“By investing in workers, job creation and community development, the POWER Plus Plan will help to fulfill a moral commitment we have as a nation to assist workers and communities who have helped power our economy for generations,” Walsh said.
Ten city and county governments in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia have passed resolutions in favor of the proposal, which requires congressional approval.
“If that money is made available, we want to make sure we are part of it,” said Jim Ward, judge executive of Letcher County, Ky., which passed a supporting resolution in August. He said mine reclamation should be tied to planning. “If you don’t have a plan on how you are going to diversify your economy, then you don’t know the best way to reclaim those lands,” he said.
The proposal’s future in Congress is uncertain.
Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers (R-5th), head of the House Appropriations Committee, has supported an alternative proposal that would create a smaller pilot reclamation program. Rogers’ plan would provide $30 million in reclamation funding for one year and be tied to easing environmental regulations on coal operators.
Rogers called his smaller proposal a “thoughtful alternative to help hard-hit communities reinvigorate their economies by using abandoned mine land to develop hospitals, community centers and much more.”
Rogers’ plan would also reduce staff and funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder, an online rural news platform published by the Center for Rural Strategies, which is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky.