Op-Ed: Tap Federal AML Fund For Coal Country Land, Water Restoration, There Is No Excuse
By Robert Hughes, Eastern PA Coalition For Abandoned Mine Reclamation
Pennsylvania Congressmen have the opportunity to bring significant help to struggling coal communities by making the passage of the RECLAIM Act a top priority.
The Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act would pump $300 million over five years into Pennsylvania coal communities to restore the land and water and create economic development opportunities.
This money sits in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund that gets its revenue from fees paid by active coal mining.
The bill has the backing of Republicans and Democrats and was approved by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee last summer.
In February, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited Washington County to announce the availability of land reclamation grants to restore abandoned mine sites and clean up polluted water. Pennsylvania will receive more than $55.6 million.
While that is welcome news for coal communities, it will not be enough to restore more than 5,500 miles of polluted streams and 180,000 acres of abandoned mine land that remains in Pennsylvania.
The economics of energy markets have created an urgent need to bring relief to coal country. Communities have lived with the ugly legacy of unregulated coal mining for decades and some brace for mine and coal-fired power plant shutdowns.
Accustomed to the boom-bust cycles of international energy markets, they find themselves in what may be the ultimate bust for the coal industry even as the rest of the Pennsylvania economy grows.
The scars left by coal mining-- the mountainous piles of waste coal, fires that have burned for years, dead streams flowing with undrinkable water-- make their communities unappealing to new businesses.
As mines and coal-fired power plants close down, many workers, often the primary providers for their families, find themselves out of work in regions where other jobs paying similar wages do not exist.
Overall, the Pennsylvania economy has been growing and creating jobs since the Great Recession. Statewide unemployment stood at 4.7 percent in December and some counties have rates as low as 3.2 percent, which is considered full employment.
But the unemployment rate in many coal counties remains above 5 percent.
That number masks the economic hit many families have endured as they have had to take part-time jobs or work that pays one-third or less of what they made in the coal industry.
King Coal so dominated the economy in many counties that it prevented the development of other industries-- a phenomenon economists call a “resource curse.”
Programs to retrain workers for jobs in other industries or to provide the skills and knowledge needed to open their own businesses have had mixed success. Matching job training with employment is often a challenge unless re-trained workers are willing to relocate or endure long commutes.
Projects funded by RECLAIM dollars could create good-paying jobs in communities that unemployed or underemployed coal industry workers already know how to do or could readily learn. Many coal miners and power plant workers have transferable skills needed at project sites.
Abandoned mine land reclamation work takes diverse skills and expertise. Reclamation projects need well-paid workers to operate heavy equipment, install and maintain water treatment systems, build and maintain access roads, install electrical equipment, truck in supplies and truck out waste, construct buildings and perform other tasks.
The economic benefits of reclamation also ripple into the local economy since the work demands supplies like stone and gravel, trees and plants, signage, traffic control, diesel fuel, mobile job trailers, steel and concrete.
Engineering firms, insurance agencies, landscaping companies and diesel repair shops gain new business from reclamation projects.
Plenty Of Work Awaits
There is no shortage of reclamation work to be done. Pennsylvania has more abandoned mine land and mine-polluted streams than any other state.
Cleaning up more than 180,000 acres of land and 5,500 miles of mine-polluted streams would keep thousands of people busy for years.
All we need is access to the money that is available in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund.
The RECLAIM Act can get that money into communities eager to transform devastated land and water into valuable community assets in which residents of coal country could take pride. Coal country has waited long enough.
Congress can best fulfill the promise of new jobs for coal workers by passing RECLAIM.
There is no excuse.
Robert Hughes is the Executive Director of the Eastern Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, a a coalition of watershed organizations and reclamation partners. Members range from individuals, to the active anthracite mining industry and co-generation power plants, to non-profit organizations, 16 county conservation districts and other organizations in the anthracite and bituminous coal region of eastern Pennsylvania that are involved with abandoned mine reclamation issues. Counties covered by EPCAMR in Northeastern and Northcentral Pennsylvania include: Tioga, Bradford, Susquehanna, Lycoming, Sullivan, Wyoming, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland, Carbon, Schuylkill, Columbia, Lebanon, Dauphin, Montour, and Wayne.
[Posted: March 4, 2018]
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