Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., co-sponsored two pieces of legislation that could help West Virginians recover economically in the twilight of the coal industry.
Manchin was a co-sponsor of the bipartisan effort to extend the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fee levied on coal companies by another 15 years. The fee, which is used to help redevelop and repurpose abandoned mine sites — of which there are many in West Virginia — expires in September.
The same group of senators also introduced what is referred to as the RECLAIM Act — a long acronym for a program that would invest in communities affected by the continuing downturn of the coal industry. Again, there is no shortage of those communities in West Virginia.
The two programs would funnel $1 billion into those communities to clean up abandoned mine sites, including numerous polluted water sources in those areas, while investing in economic development for those communities and creating job opportunities and training services for dislocated miners.
House Democrats in the West Virginia Legislature attempted similar legislation during the 2021 session, but an original bill was dismissed by the Republican supermajority, while a similar proposal offered up as an amendment to another bill was rejected.
Unlike state Democrats, Manchin, whose centrist stance has made him a linchpin to bills like President Joe Biden’s recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, has the leverage to maneuver legislation on his own wish list. He might even convince more of his Republican colleagues in the chamber to join him, given the shellacking some have taken after every one of them voted against the American Rescue Plan but later tried to take credit for its results.
Political games aside, this could be something to get West Virginia moving in the right direction. It cannot be ignored that West Virginia continues to lose population — topping the 2020 U.S. Census with an outflow of 3.2% of the state’s total population over the past 10 years. It can’t be ignored that West Virginia can’t begin to compete for growth, jobs or any type of economic restoration without improved infrastructure, including the very basic need of clean water.
These two bills are a step in the right direction. Hopefully, they will find support in the U.S. Senate and House, so West Virginians will have necessary resources and a place to start in rebuilding viable communities that offer real opportunities for economic recovery.