Congress jumped into the coal-economy debate this week with two separate bills to create employment by freeing up federal reclamation funds. Groups that have promoted the approach prefer the bill that would tie spending more closely to economic development.
Kentuckian Sarah Bowling thinks Appalachia’s economic future is tied to coal, but not in the way you might think.
She’d like the federal government to stimulate jobs restoring mine lands, not making more of them.
“You go up the hollers in East Kentucky, there’s abandoned, rusty equipment all over the place,” said Bowling, a native of Pikeville, Kentucky. “Up the creek, there’s a sludge pond just sitting there. There’s waste all over the place.”
She says that the signs of a contracting coal industry and the need for jobs to replace work in the coalfields are everywhere you look.
Bowling is part of a regional effort to accomplish just that. She’s a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organizing group involved with a regional campaign with hopes for economic development and diversification in the region’s coal-dependent communities. Dubbed the RECLAIM Act, the package of policies seeks to direct mine reclamation resources toward new investments in jobs and opportunities.
The community-based campaign grew up around legislation originally proposed by President Obama. Towns and counties throughout Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee have passed resolutions of support for the plan.
On Tuesday, two coalfield senators introduced separate bills (both dubbed “RECLAIM”) to support job creation through mine reclamation work paid for out of the current Abandoned Mine Land Fund, generated from a tax on coal. (We’ve got a separate story with more about those plans.)
Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) introduced a bill based on Obama’s 2016 Power+ proposal. The proposal from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is similar but does not emphasize that funds should be spent in a way that encourages additional economic development.
Bowling said reclamation efforts create broad community benefits. “There’s a winery in Virginia on a reclaimed mine,” she said. “We’d like to see a solar farm, which has been done in Germany. There’s eco-tourism, bringing people in to visit our beautiful landscape.”
She hopes that, with the right plan, the economy could improve to the point she could return home. “I had to go to graduate school, leave home because there were no jobs in the area,” she said.
Neither proposal has President Trump’s backing. His approach to the Appalachian jobs puzzle is doubling down on coal production. He issued a series of executive orders this week designed to roll-back the Obama Administration’s efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions. On a stage backed by coal-industry workers, Trump said his orders would free the fossil fuel industry from the shackles of “job-killing regulations” and “put the miners back to work.”
Specific targets were President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, canceling a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, reducing regulations on methane leaks, and disallowing government officials from considering climate change as a factor in federal decision-making. By signing the orders, Trump was fulfilling a promise he had made during his campaign, drawing a straight line between government efforts on climate change and the overall decline in domestic coal production.
But shortly after the election, even some of coal’s biggest supporters (McConnell, for example) questioned whether deregulation would bring back jobs. even before Trump took office,
“The reality is that the coal industry has crossed a tipping point, and there’s no way that the president is going to bring it back,” said West Virginia’s Mary Anne Hitt. “Coal is in decline for two reasons. First, there’s market pressure from natural gas and renewable energy production. And second, there’s broad-based grassroots support on the coal industry to be more accountable for the pollution and public health impacts it has on communities here in our region.”
Hitt has worked on the issue throughout Appalachia, first with Appalachian Voices and now as a campaigner for the Sierra Club. “You have to ask yourself where is there going to be a market for the coal, even if coal production were to increase. We’re just not building coal-fired power plants in America. And many plants are either already closed, or they’re scheduled to be shut down in the next couple of years.”
“People who live here see the impacts of coal all around us. We live next to the sludge ponds and piles of ash,” says Hitt. She says people in the region have elevated levels of respiratory problems, black lung, property damage and undrinkable water due to coal pollution.
“What we lack, what we need, is an honest and compassionate conversation about the future,” Hitt said. “We need our leaders to participate in that discussion, and they’re not willing to do it. They’re not providing us with the resources, the leadership or the planning it would take to address the economic diversification communities want.”
Speaking to the Daily Yonder from a national gathering of citizens working to address challenges created by the coal industry, Hitt said she was hopeful about the dueling RECLAIM Acts introduced in the Senate Tuesday. She particularly likes Manchin’s version because she said it has more potential for broader economic impact. “We see a future for Appalachia in diversification. It means renewable energy jobs, but there’s a lot more to it than energy alone.”
Hitt says she gets frustrated, at times, by the public debate. “Rural people are the critical voice. Rural people are the ones seeing the mountain tops removed to dig for coal. Rural people are the ones who lose the water supply for their ranches.”
“It’s a shame that leaders try to paint rural communities with a broad brush. It’s an oversimplification of a complex issue.” Rather than a monolithic community rallying around Trump and his calls for “bring back the coal,” says Hitt, “Rural people, rural places, they have very diverse opinions, diverse voices. What they think about energy issues, about climate change, about national politics, it’s misunderstood. What I see is that rural people want to be part of the solution, they want to participate in a conversation that leads to a new future. A better future.”