Groups collect nearly 10,000 names supporting use of $1 billion for coal regions

From the Lexington Herald-Leader:

by Bill Estep

A citizens group working to renew Eastern Kentucky’s economy is making a push this week for a proposal to free up $1 billion for reclamation work in struggling coal communities.

Members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth delivered petitions with nearly 10,000 names to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s district office in London Monday.

The petitions urge McConnell to help push through a proposal called the RECLAIM Act, which could be at a critical point this week with Congress likely to recess soon.

The proposal would accelerate the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land fund. The idea is to tie the reclamation of old mined land to projects that could help diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky and other areas grappling with a sharp downturn in coal jobs.

Examples could include reclaiming land for industrial or agricultural uses.

Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, is a key sponsor on the measure.

It has not passed the House, but supporters hope to get the measure approved soon.

“Congressman Rogers still hopes to pass RECLAIM by the end of the year,” his office said in a statement. “Central Appalachia, and specifically Eastern Kentucky, desperately needs support as they work toward economic recovery and diversity in the coalfields.”

One method to move the proposal would be to attach it to a budget resolution.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, or KFTC, and other groups argue McConnell has the most power of any federal lawmaker to push the proposal.

That’s why they took part in the petition drive, which gathered names through various websites. Others who participated included the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg and the Sierra Club.

People from across the country signed the petition, though about 1,300 were from Kentucky, according to KFTC.

KFTC also sponsored a “telephone town hall” last week to urge people to contact McConnell and other senators and has another scheduled this week.

Asked Monday if McConnell has taken a position on the RECLAIM proposal, a spokesman noted there is no version of the bill in the Senate.

Spokesman Robert Steurer said McConnell has supported several other funding measures to help Eastern Kentucky, including an additional $146 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“Senator McConnell continues to support economic development efforts and job training in coal country and will continue to work with local leaders to promote these opportunities for the region,” Steurer said.

Supporters say the RECLAIM proposal would be a significant boost for Eastern Kentucky and other coal areas at a time they need all the help they can get.

Under the bill, the federal government would distribute a total of $200 million to states and tribes each year for five years.

Rogers said Kentucky would get a total of about $100 million in addition to its regular share of abandoned-mine land spending.

The $1 billion is part of a pot that coal companies have already paid and is scheduled to be disbursed eventually, but the RECLAIM proposal would speed up release of the money.

That’s critical because Eastern Kentucky and other coal areas need help now, supporters of the measure say.

Coal jobs in the region have plunged from more than 13,000 in 2011 to just over 3,600 in the most recent quarter because of a combination of factors, including competition from natural gas, federal rules to protect air and water quality, and the depletion of many thick coal seams.

“This money could be something we could have immediately to start doing work with,” Katie Dollarhide said of the RECLAIM funding. “We need it desperately.”

Read more from the Lexington Herald-Leader.