Washington isn’t all healthcare debates and Russia investigations. On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee advanced the bipartisan RECLAIM Act to provide an economic boost to struggling coalfield communities by putting people to work cleaning up legacy coal mine pollution.
The RECLAIM Act
The RECLAIM Act of 2017 cleared the committee on a voice vote after picking up a handful of amendments from Democrats and Republicans alike. The RECLAIM Act proposes to distribute $1 billion over five years to clean up abandoned mine lands (AML). These are sites of coal mines abandoned by the companies before Congress passed the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). That law mandated coal mine reclamation and required reclamation bonds to ensure that mining-related pollution wouldn’t be abandoned. Sites that were abandoned before SMCRA are cleaned up with money that comes from a fee on coal mine production.
RECLAIM proposes to aid coal communities in two ways. The direct investment is projected to create 4,600 reclamation jobs per year for five years. But the bill goes further by targeting money to AML sites that have economic potential, clearing the way for businesses to grow near coal communities badly in need of economic diversification.
The bill, as introduced by Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), would have accomplished the first goal. Unfortunately, the bill as introduced failed to require the second, more permanent wave of economic development envisioned by RECLAIM.
Luckily, both House Republicans and Democrats recognized this shortcoming. They worked together to strengthen the RECLAIM Act before it goes to the House floor. House Natural Resources Committee staff from both parties worked closely with WORC, national organizations, and Appalachian allies to draft an amendment that maximizes the economic return of RECLAIM’s $1 billion investment. Forty-two organizations signed onto a letter of support in advance of the hearing. The United Mine Workers of America sent its own letter of support to committee members.
Representative Don Beyer (D-Va.) proposed the amendment in committee, saying he wanted to “ensure the money spent in the bill goes where it’s needed most.” The amendment was adopted by voice vote and praised by members of both parties. Several other committee members offered clarifying amendments, which were adopted by voice vote before the committee approved the bill, sending it to the House floor.
Opposition from Coal Industry Group
The bipartisan victory in the House committee came in spite of the objections of an influential pro-coal group. The National Mining Association (NMA), a coal industry lobbying group, came out against the RECLAIM Act late last week. It sent a letter to committee members urging “no” votes on the bill and informing members that the vote will be included in NMA’s Congressional Scorecard at the end of the year.
Despite NMA’s letter, most committee members weren’t cowed. They agreed unanimously to Beyer’s amendment, offered a few of their own, and passed the legislation on a voice vote.
The RECLAIM Act still has a long way to go to become law. Opponents have ample opportunities to weaken or kill it. But Tuesday’s hearing is important beyond RECLAIM’s chances in Congress. It shows that coal mine reclamation and economic diversification in coal country are not partisan issues. Both Republicans and Democrats are committed to helping struggling rural towns. Both see the significant opportunities presented by coal mine reclamation.
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