2017-06-28 / News

Coal group fights Rogers plan to help E. Kentucky counties with AML funds

By BILL ESTEP
The Lexington Herald-Leader

A national coal group is opposing a bill sponsored by eastern Kentucky’s Republican congressman that would accelerate the release of $1 billion for reclamation projects on abandoned mine lands.

The bill, known by the acronym RECLAIM and sponsored by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday at the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The measure would speed up the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land, or AML, fund in an effort to spur development in places hurt by a downturn in the coal industry. Those include eastern Kentucky, where the economy has been battered by the loss of more than half the coal jobs in the region since 2011.

The idea of Rogers’ bill is to tie reclamation of abandoned mine areas to economic development. Examples could include reclaiming sites to boost forestry, agriculture or business projects.

The bill would only pay for reclamation. “Community partnerships” would carry the ball on “economic after-projects,” according to a committee memorandum on the measure.

The AML fund comes from a small fee that companies pay on each ton of coal they mine.

The money at issue in the RECLAIM bill is supposed to be paid out eventually to fix environmental damage such as water pollution and landslides from mining that happened before 1977, but the bill would push it out much more quickly.

Supporters say that’s a benefit because communities need the money now, as they work to diversify their economies.

The effort to tie reclamation spending to economic development also differs from the traditional use of AML money, in which work is prioritized based on the threat sites pose to public health and safety.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, sent a letter to members of Congress last week urging them to vote against the measure.

Quinn said the association does not oppose the ostensible purpose of the proposal — promoting economic revitalization in coal communities. Quinn, though, said the bill does not fix longstanding flaws in the AML program, and would perpetuate practices under which most of the money companies have paid has been diverted from the main purpose of the program.

The problem is that a lot of AML money has been spent on projects that may be worthy, but don’t address clean-up of abandoned coal mines, said NMA spokesman Luke Popovich.

The bill would provide AML money to states with no demonstration that the money could be used quickly for reclamation, and would allow 30 percent or more of the money to be used on sites that don’t pose as great a threat to health or safety, Quinn said.

Rogers, who represents Kentucky’s eastern coalfield, said in a statement that he is disheartened by the NMA’s push against the bill.

Rogers said the bill had been “delicately constructed” with input from members of both parties and coal states in the Eastern and Western U.S., which have different needs.

“The RECLAIM Act is a groundbreaking bill that will finally fast-track available AML funding that has been idle for decades to spur job creation and reclamation where it’s needed most,” Rogers said. “A vote in favor of the RECLAIM Act is a vote to rescue coal country — and it’s the right thing to do.”

Tyler White, president of the the Kentucky Coal Association, said that if the AML fund can afford to release $1 billion, Congress should reduce or end the fees paid by coal companies. That matches the thinking of NMA.

But the state coal association, while a member of NMA, recognizes the reality that Eastern Kentucky needs help, he said.

“The economic situation in Eastern KY is dire and it would be difficult for KCA to advocate against any economic assistance for this part of KY,” White said in an email.

A coalition of more than 40 national or regional environmental and citizens’ groups signed a letter urging the committee to approve Rogers’ bill, saying it would help struggling coal communities without requiring taxpayer money or an increase in AML fees.

“We cannot wait any longer to get this $1 billion out of Washington and to states to clean up mines and catalyze economic opportunities in struggling communities,” the letter said.

The groups want a change in the bill, however.

The bill would only require an economicdevelopment tie-in on abandoned mine lands classified as Priority 3, meaning they involve environmental degradation but pose less of a threat. Most abandoned mine sites in the country are classified as Priority 1 or 2, according to committee memo on the bill.

The measure would allow a development link in reclamation of the higher-priority sites, but not mandate it.

That creates a concern for some that much of the money released under the bill could be spent for projects that are worthwhile, but wouldn’t advance economic development.

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