Economy Infrastructure

The House of Representatives Wednesday passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that includes two provisions that would specifically help coal-reliant communities in the Ohio Valley. 

The bill, called the Moving Forward Act, includes funding for roads and bridges, rural broadband, drinking water system repairs, renewable energy, and affordable housing, all of which Democrats say would create millions of jobs and help the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic. 

But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky indicated he would not bring the bill to a vote, calling it “political theater” too focused on cutting carbon emissions.

“That kind of rhetoric from our senator is really damaging to years of collaboration across party lines,” said Rebecca Shelton, the coordinator of policy and organizing for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which represents coal miners. “Ultimately, failure to move these bills forward in the Senate would be of true detriment to Kentuckians.”

The components specifically geared towards coal communities are the RECLAIM Act and the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, both of which have long been on the wish list for regional advocacy groups. The RECLAIM Act would invest $1 billion in cleaning up land and water polluted by coal mining, and would help turn old mine lands into economic engines in a region long marked by poor job prospects. The RECLAIM Act has passed the House in previous years with bipartisan support, but has stalled in the Senate.

The reauthorization of the AML program would help states and tribal governments reclaim mine land that has been abandoned for decades. 

More than 100 organizations, including Shelton’s ACLC, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, signed a letter this March urging McConnell and other leaders to adopt both measures, saying, “Rebuilding regional economies takes many years. Coal communities and workers have powered American homes and businesses for more than a century, and they deserve support as America’s energy landscape changes.”

Joanne Hill, a retired nurse who lives in Pulaski County, Kentucky, has been urging McConnell to pass the measures for years. “We’ve knocked on Senator McConnell’s door time and time again seeking his support for the RECLAIM Act and funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund,” she said. “Up to this point we’ve been left out in the cold. It’s time for that to change.”

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Senator McConnell called the bill a “multi-thousand page cousin of the Green New Deal, which faces a veto threat from the White House.” The spokesperson went on, “Senator McConnell continues to advocate for pro-coal, pro-family policies and remains committed to ensuring funding is secured to reclaim abandoned mine lands as well as for economic development efforts in Central Appalachia.”

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.