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Bill to increase coal-mine cleanup spending advances

By KEN WARD JR.

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation to speed up the funding of abandoned coal-mine cleanups and to focus some of that spending on projects that help the economy in ailing coalfield communities moved a step ahead Tuesday in the U.S. House.

Members of the House Committee on Natural Resources approved what is known as the “RECLAIM Act,” and sent the measure on to the House floor. The full name of the bill is the “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act of 2017.”

Under the bill, the federal government would advance the release of $1 billion — $200 million annually for five years — in money from the Abandoned Mine Lands, or AML, program to help communities that have traditionally relied on coal production for jobs but have been hurt by the downturn in the coal industry that’s been brought on by low-priced natural gas, increased use of renewable energy, the mining out of quality coal seams, and some increased environmental regulation.

Committee members approved an amendment to the bill that aims to ensure that projects funded by the additional money would be aimed at improving local economies, and that those projects were developed at least partly with input from local citizens. The amendment also gives state administrators running AML programs some flexibility to ensure high-priority abandoned mine sites continue to be reclaimed.

“The RECLAIM Act will do two things: One, reclaim abandoned mine lands to clean up our environment; and two: spur economic development on that land to reuse it for job creation and business development,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is lead sponsor of the legislation.

The legislation is similar to proposals from the Obama administration that would have increased AML program spending as part of a broader approach to addressing economic challenges facing coalfield communities, especially in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

Reps. Evan Jenkins, David McKinley and Alex Mooney, all R-W.Va., are co-sponsors of the bill.

“The RECLAIM Act will spur a new era of investment and revitalization in West Virginia and beyond,” Jenkins said in a statement. “We can take sites that are abandoned today and help turn them into economic drivers for West Virginia. These sites can be reclaimed and used to attract new industries, create new jobs, and give hope back to our coal communities”

In 1977, Congress created the AML program when it passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The program taxes each ton of coal mined nationwide — 28 cents per ton for surface mining and 12 cents per ton for underground mining — to reclaim land and water damaged by coal mining that took place prior to passage of the federal law. The idea was to have the more modern industry pay to clean up sites that were mined before new environmental protection and reclamation standards were mandated by law.

Some advocates for the program, including the chief of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s AML office, have begun pushing for Congress to ensure continuation of the program by extending the coal tax, which currently is set to expire in 2021.

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