Mine Cleanup Bill Faces Tough Odds in Lame Duck

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Stephen Lee

Nov. 7 — A bipartisan bill that would send $1 billion to mining states for land cleanup faces only a 20 percent chance of passing the House during the lame duck session, environmental lobbyists told Bloomberg BNA.

Momentum has been building for months among both Republicans and Democrats for the bill, known as the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act (H.R. 4456).

But Thom Kay, legislative associate at Appalachian Voices, pegged the bill’s chances at one in five after visiting key lawmakers’ offices in late October.

“It’s not likely to pass,” Kay told Bloomberg BNA. “The biggest thing is the timeline. We’re running out of days.”

“Even if the House passes it, it will have a tough ride in the Senate given the fact it’s never been introduced or taken seriously over there,” agreed Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission. “We’ll know more next week following [the] election.”

Urgency to Act Now

Bill Price, senior organizing representative at the Sierra Club, agreed with Kay’s 20 percent estimate. He also said that if the bill doesn’t pass in the lame duck, it could take months for House members to resettle themselves and tee up the bill in 2017.

That delay could grow if key members lose their seats on Nov. 8. The bill’s supporters would then have to develop relationships with new members and their staffs and persuade them to support the measure, Price said.

“People on the ground are waiting and have sites in mind and need the funding,” Price told Bloomberg BNA. “This is an urgent issue. We need to pass it this Congress.”

Another path forward for the bill could be its inclusion in an omnibus package in the upcoming lame duck session, said Jim Wiltraut, senior principal for government relations at industry-side firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC.

Danielle Smoot, a spokeswoman for Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the bill’s sponsor in the House, said he is continuing to push for the legislation.

“It remains a top priority, and he remains optimistic that congressional leaders will come together, so this important legislation can be enacted into law in the coming weeks,” Smoot told Bloomberg BNA.

Pilot Funding in Sight

If the RECLAIM Act doesn’t move forward, environmental advocates are hoping to at least nail down congressional funding for a cleanup pilot program funded by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which could spread to three new coal states. Under the program, cleanup projects are funded to reclaim abandoned mine lands in a way that also promotes the economy.

The House Interior-Environment appropriations bill (H.R. 5538), which passed July 14, would make $25 million apiece available for West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky pilot projects. Each of those states received $30 million in last year’s spending bill. But the House bill also delivers $15 million each for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama, all newcomers to the program.

The Senate spending bill (S. 3068), which hasn’t passed, provides the same funding for West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, but $10 million apiece for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama.

Clock Ticking on Spending Bill

With time running out on this session of Congress, the bill’s prospects remain murky. Congress could simply extend the current funding into next year, which would nix the pilot program funds for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama.

Still, Kay remained optimistic.

“At least the appropriations committee members don’t seem to have any problem with re-upping the pilot money, and there’s openness to redistributing it to include three more states,” he said. “So that’s all really positive.”

Making the Case

On Nov. 1, Appalachian Voices released a report demonstrating the economic potential locked away at old mines in Southwest Virginia. Those sites could be used for recreation, agriculture, renewable energy and commercial development, Adam Wells, the group’s economic diversification campaign coordinator, told reporters during a Nov. 1 conference call.

Kay, who distributed a draft of the report to congressional offices during his lobbying visit, said it has been helpful in winning support for the RECLAIM Act and the very notion of mine land reclamation.

“It shows people how [reclamation] can benefit their communities, their districts, their states and their bosses,” Kay said. “Staffers are interested in that for sure.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington, D.C. at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The Appalachian Voices report, “Healing Our Land, Growing Our Future,” is available at http://appvoices.org/resources/AMLstudy/AppVoices_Healing_Our_Land_AMLstudy_Nov2016.pdf.

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.