Senators push reclamation bill, escalate fight over Appalachia

From E&E News:

by Dylan Brown

Congress has left town, but lawmakers and other politicians keep engaging in skirmishes in the fight for political control of coal country.

The same group of coal-state Democrats that protested against Congress' spending deal over retired miner health care today introduced legislation to jump-start languishing coal-town economies through abandoned mine reclamation work.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) put forward a Senate version of the "Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act," or the "RECLAIM Act."

Manchin, the ringleader of the union coal-miner benefit showdown, is also firing back at his possible 2018 Senate challenger, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who has taken shots at the moderate Democrat over support for coal companies and workers.

The "RECLAIM" bill, which already exists in the House as H.R. 4456 by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), would accelerate the spending of $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land fund, which received money from coal industry fees.

Paralleling an Obama administration proposal, the idea is to steer funds toward mine reclamation projects that could stimulate local economic growth.

"This legislation will help the many mining communities throughout West Virginia and the country that have been devastated by the decline in the coal industry," Manchin said in a statement.

Kaine added: "We welcome any and all support from our Republican colleagues in making Appalachian economic development a bipartisan priority."

Despite a lobbying campaign by Appalachian citizens and environmental groups, and Rogers' support, the legislation did not gain much traction, in part because of concerns about amending the formula for doling out AML money.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), after the Lexington Herald-Leader blasted him for not backing "RECLAIM," responded with his own op-ed this week hinting he would work on the bill when President-elect Donald Trump takes office (Greenwire, Dec. 14).

Touting his support for other Appalachian recovery efforts, McConnell also rebutted criticism that he doesn't have the backs of coal miners.

McConnell took credit for the four-month extension in health care benefits for United Mine Workers of America retirees and beneficiaries, and he promised a permanent fix next year (E&E Daily, Dec. 12).

McConnell, who never scheduled a vote on Manchin's fix for both pension and health care benefits — S. 3470, the "Miners Protection Act" — said he gave miners a chance to fight another day.

But Manchin called the stopgap "inhumane," as retirees and widows will start receiving notices about losing benefits as soon as next month.

Eyes on 2018

The rhetoric shows all eyes are on the 2018 elections, when Manchin, Casey and Brown will all be trying to hold onto their Senate seats in states where Trump scored victories with the help of working-class voters like coal miners.

Manchin responded to Morrisey's challenge to declare support for Trump's controversial choice to lead U.S. EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R), with a letter yesterday noting Pruitt's "impressive resume." Morrisey has joined Pruitt in suing EPA over rules affecting fossil fuel development.

Manchin wrote: "It is critical that the next EPA Administrator has the necessary experience and expertise to get the job done. I look forward to meeting with Attorney General Pruitt and hearing how he intends to right-size the EPA and refocus it in line with the principles that I have set forth in my years of work on behalf of West Virginians."

Environmentalists have targeted Manchin and other senators with anti-Pruitt ads, but Manchin listed off his own work trying to roll back regulations on coal, including the Clean Power Plan, that have made President Obama and other Democrats deeply unpopular in West Virginia (Greenwire, Dec. 14).

"Like all West Virginians, I want clean water and clean air," he said, "but these rules ignore common sense and go too far by preventing people from working."

Manchin and Morrisey have been engaging in a back and forth. Recently, the attorney general tweeted that, unlike "others," he had delivered for miners. The message came as Manchin was pressing for retiree benefits (E&E Daily, Dec. 15).

'Strong opinions'

After months of frustration, the grass-roots groups lobbying hardest for the "RECLAIM Act" could only welcome the sudden influx of support.

"The timing of this clearly shows that both chambers of Congress are committed to passing RECLAIM in 2017 and sets a strong path forward for that to happen," said Adam Wells, an advocate with Appalachian Voices.

According to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the "RECLAIM Act" could create 4,600 jobs — many of them similar to those that coal miners have lost in recent years.

With so much uncertainty surrounding coal communities, hundreds of miners from across the country today also called on Trump and his Interior secretary selection, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), to not forget them in the shuffle.

"We all have strong opinions about why our industry is suffering: which politicians or whose agenda is to blame," said the petition letter, organized by the nonprofit Interfaith Worker Justice.

"Regardless of politics, the bottom line is that we need to take care of our brothers and sisters who are facing uncertain times," it said.

The letter urges the president-elect to ensure that coal companies, many of which are either in or emerging from bankruptcy, do not shed worker benefit or mine cleanup obligations, and to lend his support to efforts similar to the "Miners Protection Act" and "RECLAIM."

"You're making a promise to somebody when you hire them and tell them 'This is your retirement; this is what we're going to do,'" said Branden Walsh, a coal miner in Gillette, Wyo.

"And now they're reneging on that and getting bonuses for doing that. I can't think of anything worse. The coal companies should focus a little bit harder on retraining their laid-off employees."

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