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Reclamation work to be done

Pictured is West Virginia House Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, a member of the recently formed Joint Committee on Mine Reclamation, during a committee meeting Thursday morning to advance a resolution asking the federal government for $8 billion in mine reclamation funding.

The West Virginia Legislature adopted a resolution Thursday urging the federal government to allocate $8 billion to West Virginia to reclaim forfeited mine sites and support struggling coal communities.

The resolution had been advanced to the Senate and House of Delegates by a joint legislative committee that state lawmakers formed earlier this month to go after federal stimulus money for mine reclamation.

Lawmakers created the Joint Committee on Mine Reclamation after state legislators learned of federal plans to distribute $38 billion to communities affected by a decline in fossil fuel energy development.

The resolution contends that funding could aid reemployment of former coal miners and mine reclamation efforts while bolstering the current mine reclamation system.

A state legislative audit report released earlier this month found that West Virginia lawmakers and environmental regulators risk letting the state’s mining reclamation program slip into insolvency through lax statutory and permitting oversight.

The resolution touts a report released by a group created by President Joe Biden to tackle climate change in April that identifies Southern West Virginia as the area of the country most in need of focused federal investment because of its high dependence on coal-related jobs.

The Interagency Working Group responsible for the report highlighted the 25 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics areas of the country most affected by coal-related declines.

Five of them are in West Virginia: Southern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 1); Wheeling (No. 3); Northern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 11); Beckley (No. 23); and Charleston (No. 24).

The group report notes that existing federal programs, with potentially available funding totaling nearly $38 billion, could be used to provide immediate investments in areas prioritized for investment.

The resolution notes that there are 30,788 acres of forfeited mine sites in West Virginia, with only a fraction of the sites having already been reclaimed.

The measure suggests the state is entitled to federal help due to changes in federal regulations on coal and coal-fired power plant emissions in recent decades and pressure to reduce carbon emissions making it harder for West Virginia coal companies to obtain loans in the banking and insurance industry.

Environmentalists hailed the resolution.

“I’m pleased to see West Virginia lawmakers addressing this issue of insufficient reclamation bonding,” said Erin Savage, senior program manager at Appalachian Voices. “The people of West Virginia deserve effective and timely mine reclamation at all mines. But at the same time, we must make sure that coal companies are held responsible for reclaiming the land that provided their profits.”

During a June 7 joint panel meeting of state senators and delegates at which a legislative auditor presented the report, West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, recalled discussing the $38 billion available in federal funding with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in Morgantown earlier this month.

“We need to be able to take your report and repackage it in such a way that we can actually put that on Senator Manchin’s desk,” Blair told the auditor.

The resolution calls on Congress to consider the RECLAIM (Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More) Act, which would release $1 billion from the remaining, unappropriated balance in the federal fund for abandoned mine lands to states to be spent on reclamation projects in communities affected by abandoned mines and the downturn in coal mining.

The resolution asks for $200 million of that $1 billion to be allocated to West Virginia.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., is a co-sponsor of the House version of the RECLAIM Act and has called it an economic revitalization and diversification tool for Appalachia and other coal-producing regions.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Senate version of the bill.

The resolution also urges Congress to extend the fee levied on coal companies that funds the reclamation program for abandoned mine lands, which is set to expire at the end of September.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced $18.9 million for West Virginia to reclaim abandoned mine lands in March. More than $8 billion has been distributed to states for abandoned mine land reclamation projects since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act established the program in 1977.

“It will be disastrous if Congress doesn’t act to reauthorize The Abandoned Mine Land Fund before it expires,” the Rev. Robin Blakeman of the West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light said in a statement. “This fund is essential for the sake of job creation and the cleanup of old mine sites.”

Federal regulators say it would take more than $10 billion of work to reclaim eligible abandoned mine land sites. The fee helps provide funding for eligible states like West Virginia to address hazardous conditions and pollution left behind by past coal mining.

“We applaud our state legislature for standing up to clean up these hazards to our communities and put people to work at the same time,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition executive director Angie Rosser said in a statement.

In a letter to West Virginia’s congressional delegation earlier this month also supporting extension of the federal Abandoned Mine Land reclamation program, Gov. Jim Justice cited a DEP estimate that $4.2 billion is needed to eliminate the current inventory of abandoned mine land hazards across the state.

Justice advocated for accelerated use of money sitting in the Abandoned Mine Land trust fund but opposes the RECLAIM Act.

Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., does not support the RECLAIM Act, saying it would divert Abandoned Mine Land program funding from its original purpose. She advocates for modernizing and innovating coal mines, instead.

Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., has been noncommittal on the RECLAIM Act, saying he supports its goals but would have to review the specific details of the legislation if it came up for a vote in the House.

Miller and Mooney have co-sponsored a bill introduced by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., competing with Cartwright’s Abandoned Mine Land fee authorization extension proposal. Cheney’s bill, H.R. 2462, supported by the National Mining Association, would extend the program for seven years — as opposed to the 15 in Cartwright’s legislation — and reduce fees by 40%.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who co-introduced a previous version of the RECLAIM Act in 2017 with then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not responded to requests for comment on her stance on current versions of the RECLAIM Act.

“We are excited to see the West Virginia state legislature’s resolution calling on the federal government to pass the RECLAIM Act and reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Land Program,” Dan Taylor, Appalachian regional field organizer for the BlueGreen Alliance between labor unions and environmental organizations, said in a statement. “Passing these bills won’t just clean up mine lands in West Virginia and protect public health. They will help create good coal reclamation jobs while putting hundreds of sites back into productive economic use.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note the House's adoption of the resolution, which happened after press time Thursday evening.

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

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