The Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act, or RECLAIM Act (H.R.4456), was introduced by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) in February 2016 and now counts bipartisan support from 22 Congressional cosponsors. The bill would allocate $1 billion for environmental restoration and economic development in Appalachia, a region that has particularly suffered from the coal industry's decline. The bill would not result in new spending, but would make it easier for long-standing coal communities to access funds from the Abandoned Mine Lands Trust, which currently contains nearly $2.5 billion specifically earmarked for reclaiming old mines. The funds would be used to clean up (reclaim) abandoned coal mines and help communities diversify their economies.

U.S. demand for coal in the electric power sector is down because the development of fracking has made natural gas much more competitive for electricity generation; stricter environmental regulations have also played a part, but to a much lesser degree. Domestic coal production is also falling, from about 1 billion tons in 2014 to an estimated 732.8 million tons in 2016. In addition, many jobs have been lost because new mines use techniques that require fewer workers (strip mining out west and mountain-top removal in the east). The Appalachian coal industry is particularly hard-hit, as coal extraction has gradually slid west—towards states like Wyoming and Montana, where mines are newer and cheaper to operate. For the people whose livelihoods depend on the Appalachian mines, this has led to slashed jobs and a plummeting economy.

The RECLAIM Act would address the fallout resulting from the decline of the Appalachian coal industry by diversifying local economies and mitigating the pollution emitted from abandoned mines, many of which were never properly cleaned up. With federal help, former miners and other unemployed local residents could reclaim their land and develop new agricultural, touristic, and clean energy opportunities.

Local support for the bill is enthusiastic. A poll of 1,050 residents of Coal Country (Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West  Virginia) found that “at least 87 percent of voters in each state support the legislation” and that support was not only uniform between genders and income class, but crossed party lines as well. The poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

The RECLAIM Act currently has 22 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, but lacks a companion bill in the Senate. Supporters hope to push the legislation forward during the lame-duck session after the elections on November 8. The passage of the RECLAIM Act would bring substantial relief and a chance for economic revitalization in the Appalachian region.


Author: Dylan Ruan