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Rural Blog: McConnell reverses course, supports $1 billion plan to assist struggling coal regions

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has signed on to legislation to free up $1 billion in reclamation projects in Eastern Kentucky and other struggling coal regions, a measure he was not willing to endorse last year.

“U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican whose district includes the state’s eastern coalfield, introduced a similar proposal in February 2016 as a way of boosting areas where the economy has been riddled by a steep drop in coal jobs, but the measure did not clear the House,” Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“The proposal would accelerate the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land, or AML, fund. The idea is to tie the reclamation of mined sites to projects that could help diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Kentucky has two coalfields, in the east and west.

McConnell said in a press release, “After suffering eight years of job losses in the coalfields, Kentucky families and communities are in need, and this bill would provide additional resources to these regions.”

Estep writes, “Coal companies pay a fee into the AML fund; the $1 billion is part of what the companies have already paid. The fund has an unappropriated balance of $2.4 billion, according to a release from Rogers. In addition, money could be used for a broader range of projects than funding under the regular AML program.”

Estep continues: “Money from the AML fund is supposed to be disbursed eventually to states anyway, but the [legislation] would speed up the release, funneling $200 million to states annually for five years.”

In the past, opposition from Western coal states has blocked the move. This year’s legislation has a new feature, Estep notes: “A change which would not mandate citizen engagement or an economic-development purpose in reclaiming high-priority abandoned mine sites. That raises a concern that most of the money could be spent on projects that did not advance economic development,” voiced by Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center.

“The bill would encourage projects at high-priority sites to be tied to economic development, but not require it, according to Rogers’ office,” Estep reports.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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