After years of groundwork by coal-impacted communities, the RECLAIM Act and a bill to reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Fund were reintroduced in the U.S. House today by Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). These bills, if passed, would provide an immediate economic boost by employing thousands of people in reclamation jobs across the country. Last year, these bills passed the House, but died in the Senate. Now, the need for action is greater than ever. This legislation has always been important, but it is especially critical this year after the COVID-19 crisis and the continuing cascade of coal bankruptcies have further devastated our communities. Thankfully, momentum is growing. In addition to Representative Cartwright’s actions today, over the last few weeks, Senator Manchin has also made clear that the AML program is a priority in West Virginia.
The RECLAIM Act would invest $1 billion in projects that clean up abandoned coal mines and waters polluted by them, and catalyze community development projects on these reclaimed sites. Reauthorizing the AML fund would contribute $1.7 billion over the next 15 years to AML programs to clean-up hazardous sites. Support for the bills are rooted in communities struggling with abandoned mines and the decline of coal jobs, including in east Kentucky where coal production and employment have both declined by over 25 percent in the last year alone — and where over $900 million is needed to clean up existing AML sites.
The re-introduction of the RECLAIM Act in the 117th Congress, sponsored by Democratic Representative Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, Republican Representative G.T. Thompson, and others, demonstrates the continued bipartisan support for this legislation. The $1 billion that the Act would disburse is sitting, unspent, in the federal AML fund and is not scheduled for distribution until 2023. The RECLAIM Act would, instead, make it such that these funds are distributed over the next five years, beginning in 2021. Twenty coal states would receive funding through the RECLAIM Act. Communities are ready to transform these funds into jobs and transform AML sites in their communities into safe spaces for community and economic use.
Introducing legislation to reauthorize the AML fund alongside the RECLAIM Act is critical for ensuring continued funding to clean-up AML sites. Though $1 billion from the RECLAIM Act is a good start, at least $11 billion is needed to clean up identified AML sites across the country. But, that is a very conservative estimate and may be as little as one-third of the true cost. At the same time,funding for the AML program will expire in September without congressional action. Money for the AML program is funded by a small fee on coal severance ($0.28 per ton of coal mined from surface mines, $0.12 per ton of coal mined from underground mines).
Over the last 40 years, the AML program has eliminated over 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed over 1,000 miles of dangerous highwalls, restored water supplies to countless residents of coalfield communities, and created jobs and economic development opportunities. It’s also protected 7.2 million people nationwide from hazards like landslides and flooding that result from leaving damaged lands unaddressed. Without reauthorizing the funding that supports these projects, our communities will remain at risk and the potential for new jobs and economic growth will be left unrealized.
Many people in Central Appalachia already possess the earth-moving skills necessary for reclamation work, including laid-off coal miners. By supporting the AML program and investing $1 billion in these projects in 20 states through the RECLAIM Act, these bipartisan bills will strengthen our infrastructure, protect against flooding and landslides such as those that have devastated Eastern Kentucky in the past month, create thousands of jobs and spark economic development across Appalachia. The communities that powered our country for generations deserve better. Now, we have a chance to ensure the economic recovery includes them. We must pass the RECLAIM Act and Reauthorize the AML fund as just the first step in ensuring a brighter future.