Advocates from traditional coal-producing regions were in the nation’s capital recently to take another shot at getting the RECLAIM Act through Congress.
Local advocates Taysha DeVaughan of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and retired University of Virginia’s College at Wise professor Laura Miller were among volunteers who lobbied during the third week of June for the jobs-through-reclamation bill, according to the Sierra Club’s Gabby Gillespie.
The legislation, introduced without success in 2016 and 2017, has returned in the 2019 Congressional session as H.R. 2156 in the House of Representatives and S. 1232 in the Senate.
Virginia sponsors include Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats. House cosponsors include Ninth District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.
Currently, there is about $2.3 billion in the federal abandoned mine land reclamation fund.
The RECLAIM Act would immediately release $1 billion and distribute it in annual increments over fiscal years 2020-24 to eight coal-producing states. The funds would go specifically to reclaim mine sites abandoned before 1977 and convert them into sites suitable for economic development.
House bill sponsor Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, was among panelists who discussed the legislation with journalists during a June 19 teleconference.
It was moderated by Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky.
Despite two previous attempts, the legislation had never gotten out of House and Senate committees until now. Dixon noted that the House bill was reported out of the Natural Resources committee in May.
In 2015, coal country local governments passed 29 resolutions supporting the RECLAIM Act, Dixon said. Last year, local governments in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee passed another round of support resolutions.
During the third week of June, 30 coal community leaders came to Washington to discuss the bill with lawmakers, Dixon noted.
Cartwright said there’s no reason to wait. The money is “just sitting there,” he said, and the bill would simply speed up its release and use.
Kentucky state Rep. Angie Hatton of Whitesburg said her statehouse district has lost two-thirds of its coal jobs since 2011. Every school child in Letcher County is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Official unemployment rates are falling in southeast Kentucky, she said — not because more jobs are coming but because work-eligible people are moving away to look for work.
Hatton pleaded for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, “to join this fight with us.”
McConnell can make this happen if he will make it a priority, Hatton said.
McConnell was a sponsor of the original 2016 Senate bill but has not signed on to subsequent bills.
Responding to reporters’ questions, Hatton said the response from Kentucky members of Congress she met was very encouraging and more positive than in previous years. Hatton also met with McConnell’s staff, who said they will be looking at the current legislation.
On June 26, Gillespie sent journalists an update from Tennessee advocate Bonnie Swinford.
As a result of advocates’ efforts, Swinford wrote, the RECLAIM Act now has 42 co-sponsors, with others expected to sign on in coming weeks.
Volunteers during the June trip attended 70 meetings to lobby for the bill, “including meetings with House leadership staff,” she wrote.
Opposition to the legislation is coming largely from the National Mining Association, according to Gillespie.