Below is the full oral testimony of ACLC’s Senior Coordinator of Policy and Community Engagement, Eric Dixon, on March 28th, 2019 before the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing regarding abandoned mine lands and economic opportunity in Appalachia. Click here to watch the full hearing.
“Good morning Chairman Lowenthal, Ranking Member Gosar, and members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to speak today on this critical set of issues, including the RECLAIM Act.
My name is Eric Dixon and I am the Senior Coordinator of Policy and Community Engagement at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Letcher County, Kentucky, which represents coal miners and their families on issues of black lung disease and mine safety, litigates cases related to the environmental cost of extractive industry, and advocates on issues related to abandoned mines and a Just Transition in Appalachia.
I live in Knott County, Kentucky, where there is an abandoned coal mine less than a mile from my front porch.
Every day on my drive to work, I pass vacant homes and businesses, cracked and broken roads, closed schools and senior citizen centers. The economy has never been good or fair in Central Appalachia, but it has recently gotten much worse. Letcher County once had over 2,000 coal jobs. Now, there are fewer than 100. People here are hurting.
Along my route I also pass a spot where acid mine drainage pours out of the mountainside, turning Sandlick Creek bright orange. It starts at the local fire department and runs along front yards of homes where children play.
There are thousands of abandoned mines in Kentucky and tens of thousands across the country. It will cost at least $10 billion to clean up all of the land and water damaged by pre-’77 coal mines. You can’t live safely near many of these sites, much less launch a business or get a local economy going.
Just a few steps from our office sits the county courthouse, where in 2015 the county government passed a resolution urging Congress to introduce and pass what would become RECLAIM. Through 2015 and 2016, twenty-nine localities across four Appalachian states urged Congress to take action on this bill. In 2016 the RECLAIM Act was introduced by Representatives Hal Rogers and Matt Cartwright, among others.
RECLAIM has two goals:
Create thousands of jobs fixing damaged land and water in communities devastated by the decline of coal. These are jobs that many people in the local workforce, including former coal miners, have the skills to do well.
Spur many more jobs and benefits through development on sites once they’re cleaned up.
Based on the version of RECLAIM passed by this committee last Congress:
The RECLAIM Act would use $1 billion of the $2.3 billion AML Fund collected from the coal industry for mine reclamation that’s currently sitting in Washington.
Every AML dollar would be spent exclusively on coal mine cleanup, not on economic development projects themselves. Projects will be designed with a future development use in mind.
Last Congress, the RECLAIM Act had forty bipartisan co-sponsors. Recently, communities doubled-down on their support:localities passed twenty-seven more resolutions. In Kentucky, local officials and reclamation businesses are pressing Congress to act.
Recent projects in Appalachia demonstrate the potential of pairing mine cleanup with economic development: a renovated mine exhibit in Kentucky and adjacent new small businesses; an aquaponics facility powered by on-site solar in West Virginia; boating and angling in the remediated North Branch of the Potomac River in Maryland; and a Virginia winery that’s been operating for over a decade on a reclaimed surface mine. I’ve summarized the benefits of each project in my written testimony.
These projects won’t create enough jobs to single-handedly revitalize the local community, but they are making a meaningful contribution to building a new economy and making our communities safer.
RECLAIM is only a part of that much larger task.
The black lung epidemic must be stopped. Coal companies need to pay their fair share for damage wrought on miners’ lives and on land across the country. Unfortunately, neither of these problems are going away any time soon. Congress should extend the black lung tax rate that expired at the end of 2018 and reauthorize the AML Program beyond its current 2021 sunset.
On those same drives home from work, I tune into our “Mountain Community Radio” station. I hear stories of lives shattered by mass layoffs, but also voices determined to build a future in a place they believe is worth fighting for.
I urge this Congress to listen to this community-led movement for a brighter future in our nation’s coal communities and introduce and pass the RECLAIM Act as soon as possible.