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By Stephen Lee
Sept. 23 — A coalition of environmental activists and coal-state residents will descend on the Senate from Sept. 26 through Sept. 28 to lobby for the introduction of a bill to revitalize struggling coal communities.
The bill in question, the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act (H.R. 4456) , doesn’t yet have a Senate sponsor, but Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have all signaled interest.
The bill would take $1 billion from the existing Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund, in five yearly tranches of $200 million each, and spread it around to fund economic development projects in states and tribal lands across the country. The Obama administration has offered the same proposal as part of its POWER+ plan, which, like H.R. 4456, has stalled.
The group of 20 to 25 activists and residents plan on making the case that H.R. 4456 must pass before the end of the current session “in order to start getting this money down here so it can do some good and generate some jobs,” said Bill Price, senior organizing representative at the Sierra Club, which will be participating in the “fly-in” day.
As part of their lobbying, the groups are pushing to ensure the bill contains language about protecting and restoring the environment.
One procedural barrier has been the Miners’ Protection Act (S. 1714), which protects miners’ health care and pension benefits. Manchin wants to move that first, according to Price. But with that bill clearing the Senate Finance Committee Sept. 21, combined with the expectation that a companion version will move swiftly through the House, a path could now be clearing for the RECLAIM Act.
“We understand that it’s a very tight legislative calendar, but for people in coal communities all across this country, this is an important bill,” Price told Bloomberg BNA. “So we shouldn’t wait for the next Congress to take it up, when we’ll have to start all over again. Let’s get it done now.”
The bill has drawn bipartisan support in the House. Most of the opposition to it has come from Western lawmakers, Price said.
“They’re coming around a little bit, but are still making comments about, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Price said.
Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency, said that although the RECLAIM Act funds wouldn’t be directed to the ARC, they will help trigger mutually reinforcing projects throughout coal country.
“By the time those dollars reach a community in Appalachia, it should not surprise anybody to see that they help leverage [ARC dollars] at some point, and create opportunities for other private investment to occur,” Gohl told Bloomberg BNA.
On Sept. 22, Manchin and Capito announced $800,000 in Department of Health and Human Services funding for the Coalfield Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that provides affordable housing for low- income families in southern West Virginia.
“West Virginia’s coal country has been devastated by this administration’s harmful regulations, and we are fighting to keep the coal jobs we have left,” Manchin said in a statement. “Making sure every out-of-work coal miner has access to meaningful job opportunities is one of my top priorities.”
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The text of the RECLAIM Act is available at http://www.congress.gov/114/bills/hr4456/BILLS-114hr4456ih.pdf.
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