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Against a comeback plan for coal communities

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, spoke out against an amendment that would have created a comeback plan for coal communities on the Senate floor Saturday. The amendment would have been included in a bill requiring coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities to keep at least 30 days of coal supply under contract, but the House concurred with the Senate’s vote to reject it.

The West Virginia Legislature passed a bill on the last day of the regular legislative session Saturday designed to help the coal industry while rejecting an amendment designed to help communities devastated by the industry’s decline.

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 542, which requires coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities to keep at least 30 days of coal supply under contract for the lifespan of those plants — something electric utility representatives told state lawmakers they already do.

But the bill no longer includes an amendment that would have established a “Coal Community Comeback Plan” for West Virginia.

The amendment, introduced by Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, and adopted by the House in a 49-48 vote Friday, would have directed the state Public Service Commission to facilitate creating a plan mandated to revitalize communities affected by coal-fired plant closures. The plan would have aimed to create opportunities to increase jobs in coal and other industries, defining affected communities as counties in which a coal mine or coal-fired plant has closed since 2000 and caused a loss of at least 200 jobs.

But the Senate rejected Evans’s amendment Saturday, voting 21-13 to send the bill back to the House for its approval of the bill without the amendment.

The House complied, voting 70-30 to scrap the amendment despite impassioned arguments against doing so from some delegates who made a case that not having a plan for revitalizing communities whose economies have been ravaged by coal plant and mine closures would leave their populations and tax bases on a decline, and their chances of benefiting from an expected federal investment in rural communities as part of the Biden administration’s recently announced jobs and infrastructure plan greatly diminished.

“We would be fools if we agreed to recede from this [amendment],” said Minority Whip Shaun Fluharty, D-Ohio, noting the House passed a similar bill in last year’s session unanimously before it stalled in the Senate.

The House then voted 89-11 to pass the bill without the amendment.

“We do almost nothing for our coal communities that are dying and withering away,” Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said. “Why not help communities that are in desperate need of an economy that can support them?”

The chair and vice chair of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee were among the senators to speak out against the amendment on the Senate floor Saturday.

“It kills the full intent of the bill,” said Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, the vice chair and lead sponsor of the bill, adding that the bill’s intent was merely to save the eight coal plants left operating in the state.

Sen. Randy E. Smith, R-Tucker, suggested that the amendment was “non-germane” to the bill.

“[The bill] has already been butchered with not only a butcher’s knife, but with a hatchet too,” Smith said.

The original version of SB 542 would have made further-reaching reforms to keep West Virginia’s dwindling fleet of coal plants operating as long as possible. Those reforms included requiring in-state power producers to maintain 2019 coal consumption levels, and file compliance plans every three years with the long-dormant state Public Energy Authority specifying how 2019 coal consumption levels would be maintained.

The initial version of the bill also required utilities to keep a 90-day coal supply under contract. But the required supply was shortened to come closer to what representatives from Appalachian Power, FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy said they currently keep under contract.

Evans’ amendment would have created an advisory committee to develop and recommend a plan for coal communities co-chaired by the head of the state Public Service Commission or their designee and the Department of Economic Development secretary or their designee.

The committee would have been required to meet at least once every three months and hold at least three public hearings on the state of the plan for coal communities, with at least one hearing held in each of the state’s congressional districts.

By July 1, 2022, the committee would have had to present a draft plan to the Public Service Commission chair and a final plan to the governor and the Legislature by the end of 2022.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, spoke passionately in favor of the amendment on the Senate floor Saturday prior to the chamber’s rejection of it, choking back tears as he made the case that it would help alleviate poverty in Boone County, where coal closures have eaten away at the county’s tax base and budget.

“What we have here is a chance, the best chance to be able to diversify the economy of Southern West Virginia,” Stollings said. “Folks, this is important, probably the most important vote for me this whole session ... We need a plan.”

Reach Mike Tony at mtony@hdmediallc.com, 304-348-1236 or follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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