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Struggling coal-mining communities would have access to an additional $1 billion in federal funds to rebuild their economies by restoring abandoned mine lands under the president’s budget proposal released Monday.
The funding would allow communities to do mine restoration activities to create reclamation jobs, put the land to new economic uses and integrate reclamation into larger regional economic development plans, according to the White House.
The plan is a departure from current abandoned-mine land reclamation policy, which prioritizes reclaiming land based only on whether it is dangerous to humans or the environment.
Funds would come from the existing Abandoned Mine Land program, which assesses a 35-cents a ton tax on mined coal to pay for restoring mines that have been abandoned without restoration. That includes mining lands abandoned before enactment of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
The abandoned-mine-lands fund currently has about $2.5 billion. The president’s proposal would release an additional $200 million a year for the next five years for the expanded mine reclamation activities, according to the White House.
Most of the nation’s backlogged un-reclaimed mines are in Central Appalachia.
A citizens’ law center that has researched funding for abandoned mine lands issued a press release applauding the proposal.
“More [abandoned mine reclamation] funding in this region, like the increase proposed today, could put miners back to work and lay a foundation for economic growth in the region,” said Evan Smith, a staff attorney at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “Unemployed miners and others have the skills necessary to do reclamation work on AML projects.”
Central Appalachia lost 6,000 coal-mining jobs from 2012 to 2013, he said.
The proposal is part of a larger initiative the White House is calling the POWER+ Plan, which is an effort to help coal-dependent communities recover economically. Besides reclamation funding, the plan would shore up the underfunded pension and health funds of the United Mine Workers of America and create billions of dollars in tax incentives for technology to burn coal with less carbon emissions.
The head of a Central Appalachian community development organization said the reclamation proposal could be an exciting opportunity for hard-hit coal communities in the region.
“This is the right sort of money at real scale, and it’s going toward doing the right things for the region,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky. “There’s the potential to create jobs in the short term in reclamation work. Plus the restoration work supports longer-term economic impact and other positive results.”
Maxson said that it was hard to evaluate the entire program in the few paragraphs the White House had released on the proposal but that “it was the right conversation to be having.”
Representative Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky, head of the House Appropriations Committee, was not available to respond to the Daily Yonder’s request for comment. Rogers represents the state’s Fifth Congressional District, a region with high unemployment and numerous unreclaimed mines.