House lawmakers propose $1 billion in aid for struggling coal country

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chair of the House of Representatives appropriations committee introduced a bill on Wednesday that would channel $1 billion to revitalize battered coal-producing communities.

House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers, a long-serving Kentucky Republican, said the RECLAIM Act would provide support to coal-producing communities hit by the decline of the industry to redevelop their economies.

Under the bill, which he introduced with both Democrats and Republicans from Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, $1 billion would be released from the government’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program to help communities generate new economic activities.

“Many coal communities in Appalachia simply do not have the resources to reclaim the abandoned mine sites within their borders,” said Rogers, who represents eastern Kentucky’s coal-mining counties. “This bill allows these communities to be proactive in restoring these sites and utilize them to put our people back to work.”

The bill comes after months of talks with the Obama administration, which last year proposed the POWER+ Plan, a multibillion-dollar strategy to support the revitalization of coal country using unused funds from the AML, which consists of fees on coal companies collected over the years.

Republican lawmakers had initially been reluctant to support the administration’s plan because they blamed its policies, including regulations forcing power plants to cut carbon emissions tied to burning coal, for the contraction in the coal industry that has seen some of its companies go bankrupt.

The bill reflects a few modifications to the White House proposal, including measures to compensate Western states. Wyoming pays the most into the AML because it is still an active low-sulfur coal producer, yet most federal money would likely flow to older coal mining regions like Appalachia.

A White House official said the RECLAIM Act is consistent with the administration’s proposal.

“The legislation introduced today would bring $1 billion in much needed investment to support abandoned mine land reclamation linked with economic development in struggling coal communities that badly need both,” the official said.

Representative Matt Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said the bill will create new opportunities “for the families that depended on mining jobs, benefits, and pensions that have disappeared as coal companies have closed their operations.”

Local communities welcomed the bill and urged its swift passage.

“This is what we’ve been waiting on. This bill, and the money that could come from the bill into our local economies, could give us a little more security,” said Kimberly Shepherd, a member of grass-roots group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Jonathan Oatis