Whitesburg KY

Coalfields deserve real shot at revival

Deep in some nondescript building in our nation’s capital there must be a computer that spits out acronyms.

If so, it hit a triple with the RECLAIM Act, introduced last week by a bipartisan coalition of Appalachian lawmakers, most significantly House appropriations chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

This bill would do more than just reclaim land and water damaged by coal mining: A poor region could reclaim a tiny fraction of the wealth it has exported to the rest of the nation, while hard-working people, chained economically to a single dying industry, could reclaim some self-determination and dignity.

If Congress approves — and it most certainly should — payments of $1 billion, already owed to coal states from the Abandoned-Mine- Lands fund, would be accelerated over five years.

The bill mirrors a proposal that President Barack Obama made a year ago as part of his Power+ Plan to help revive places hard hit by the coal industry’s decline.

In December, Congress approved $50 million for economic development in coal-dependent places and Obama was expected to propose another $50 million in his budget this week. Obama also is asking Congress to stabilize health-care benefits for retired coal miners, which gains urgency as more coal companies go into bankruptcy.

Twenty-eight local governments and organizations in Appalachia, including 14 in Eastern Kentucky, have urged Congress to support the president’s plan.

But before getting too excited, remember this: The results of any spending will rest entirely on the ideas that come from the places the money is meant to help.

More smart ideas are swirling around than ever before, fanned by government initiatives, grassroots organizations, non-profits and university spinoffs.

The challenge is daunting, nonetheless.

Money from the $2.5 billion AML fund traditionally is dribbled out in much smaller amounts and allocated to repair sites that pose a danger. RECLAIM would give top priority to reclamation projects that promote “economic revitalization, diversification and development.” Most of the $200 million a year over five years would go to Central Appalachia.

Sounds good. But if coalfield leaders, in both public and private sectors, were brimming with ideas for diversifying the economy, the region wouldn’t be chained to a single dying industry. And if we keep doing the same things we’ve always done, nothing will change. The anti-poverty programs of the 1960s fell far short of transformational because they were co-opted by powerful local people who profited from the existing economic order.

Extreme skepticism should greet blueprints for Shangri-La on the strip mine or roads to nowhere: The AML economic development fund must not become a porkfest for the usual contractors and cronies; if that happens the lost opportunity will be tragic.

Coal counties in Central Appalachia are by far the poorest places in the 205,000-square miles served by the federal Appalachian Regional Commission. They’re among the poorest in the country. It’s critical that these centers of greatest need have a shot at the federal money that could soon be flowing and, just as important, that they propose competitive plans that can work.

Of course, all of these concerns will remain theoretical unless Congress acts.

Obama, who has repeatedly called for helping places harmed by the steep loss of coal jobs, has less than a year in office. Rogers has said this probably will be his last year as appropriations chairman. After November’s election, Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell may no longer be majority leader.

This is the year to drop the finger-pointing and partisan posturing and help a struggling region that has contributed hugely to this nation’s prosperity. Congress should get on with RECLAIM: Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.

— The Lexington Herald-Leader

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