U.S. Senator Duckworth floats plan to rescue coal country

FILE PHOTO: A small memorial remembering local coal miners who died on the job or of mining related illnesses occupies a small plot near the mines, in Cumberland, Kentucky, U.S. August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth on Thursday unveiled a plan to rehabilitate communities hurt by the decline of the U.S. coal industry - an appeal to a political constituency seen as important in the November election.

The bill would direct investment to communities reeling from closures of mines and coal-fired power plants in recent years, to create new jobs and help them grapple with issues like opiod addiction and black lung disease here, she said.

“We can’t just tell these communities to let go of coal because there is nothing else,” said Duckworth, who is one of several women vetted as a possible running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in an interview.

The bill would expand Medicare to laid-off coal workers, guarantee free higher education for miners and their families, provide federal homebuying assistance and create a redevelopment office. Cost estimates for the bill were not immediately available.

United Mineworkers of America President Cecil Roberts called on senators from both parties to adopt the legislation.

Coal has struggled to compete against cheap natural gas and renewable energy despite efforts by the Trump administration to prop it up by rolling back Obama-era climate regulation. U.S. coal-fired power plants shut down here at the second-fastest pace on record in 2019, according to a Reuters review of federal data.

Other policies in the bill include a rewrite of bankruptcy rules to require that coal companies pay for health and pensions to their workers and clean up mines before they compensate executives. It would also provide incentives for some coal plants to install carbon capture technology and create a federal procurement program for goods manufactured in coal country.

The bill does not yet have any co-sponsors but Duckworth thinks it will get traction in Congress if Biden wins the election because it is compatible with his energy policy.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Cynthia Osterman