At a March ceremony to sign an executive order reversing Obama-era environmental regulations, coal miners were arranged on stage around President Donald Trump as he took up his pen.
“You know what it says, right?” Trump asked the miners. “You’re going back to work.”
From his campaign rallies to White House events, President Donald Trump has surrounded himself with coal miners and promised to restore their collapsed industry.
But despite a slight uptick in industry activity, most analysts do not forecast a large-scale reversal of the long, downward trend in coal production or employment. A recent Columbia University study explains why: The regulations Trump has targeted accounted for only a small part of the industry’s downturn, and larger market forces favor other fuel sources.
“We think production and employment will be mostly flat or declining regardless of policy the Trump administration puts in place,” report co-author Trevor Houser said. “It’s time to have a challenging but important conversation about a more diverse economy.”
Of course, conversations like that have been happening across the Ohio Valley region. Three bipartisan proposals now before Congress could help miners and mining communities meet some economic, environmental, and health challenges.
ReSource reporters Glynis Board, Becca Schimmel, and Benny Becker have been covering those proposals and offer these assessments of ideas that aim to help mend mining country.
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Restore Land, Reboot Economies
Regional lawmakers acknowledge the need for more diverse economic activity. The RECLAIM Act attempts to do that by spending more on restoration of lands damaged by mining.
The full name is quite a mouthful: The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More” Act of 2017. That might not be the most elegant use of an acronym but the RECLAIM Act is probably the leading proposal to invest in coal country projects and better position the region’s economy.
The main idea is to accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine land by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period. Mine land reclamation such as watershed restoration can create jobs, thanks to a clever permit banking system that allows companies that need permits to alter waterways or wetlands in one place to invest in restoration of damaged streams in another.
The legislation also calls for leveraging those mine reclamation projects in ways that increase chances for long-term economic activity on the reclaimed mine sites.
The bill would speed up spending from the federal fund established decades ago with the intention of restoring abandoned coal mining land, especially in areas that have lost coal jobs.
RECLAIM echoes similar initiatives started during the Obama administration. The Pilot AML Fund Project, which made $90 million in grants available last year, was renewed in the latest federal spending bill and even expanded. Kentucky and West Virginia should each get $25 million in the 2017 fiscal year, and Ohio could get as much as $10 million.
And the POWER Initiative, which has pumped more than $75 million in grants into projects that aim to diversify the Appalachian economy, was also renewed and expanded in the spending bill passed by Congress.
The latest version of the RECLAIM Act was filed in March in both the House and Senate. Last month a House Natural Resources subcommittee heard from experts about the bill but it awaits a committee vote.
- Glynis Board
Support Retired Miners
Mining employment has plummeted in recent years but there are about 43,000 retirees in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia depending on the United Mine Workers pension program, and their retirement benefits are shaky after a wave of company bankruptcies.
Miners hoped to secure their health and pension benefits in The Miner’s Protection Act, a bill with broad bipartisan support. However, in the weeks before some benefits were set to expire in April, pension and health benefits were split in a political deal as part of the federal spending bill. Congress extended health benefits, using language from legislation Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced in January, but the pension funds were not addressed.
West Virginia University Law Professor Patrick McGinley said the original bill addressing both pensions and health benefits would likely have passed had it been given a vote.
“McConnell had the power to bring a bill up for a vote that would take care of both the health care benefits and the pension issues and he chose not to do that even though a majority made up of Democrats and Republicans were prepared to vote for that bill,” McGinley said.
Opinions vary on the chances for legislation to shore up the pensions. McGinley doubts Congressional action is likely after the pensions were split from health benefits. Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican and chairman of the Congressional Coal Caucus, disagreed and predicted solid support. A UMW spokesperson said the union is hopeful that there may be action before the end of the year.
Sen. McConnell will remain a key player, of course. A McConnell staffer said in a statement that miners’ pensions should be considered as part of a broader pension reform.
- Becca Schimmel
Boost Black Lung Funding
Federal researchers are describing the current uptick in black lung disease as “one of the largest industrial medicine disasters the United States has ever seen.”
Miners are getting the worst form of black lung at higher rates than previously recorded, and at younger ages. Advanced black lung, which is caused by inhaling dust, leaves miner’s lungs with big patches of scar tissues and makes breathing extremely difficult. The only possible treatment is a lung transplant — which is expensive, risky, and often unlikely to extend a miner’s life by more than a few years.
The growing crisis is stressing the system established to help miners with black lung. In 1972, the federal government established black lung clinics, which were intended to be funded with $10 million per year but have been chronically under funded.
The recently passed federal spending bill allocated $7.2 million, a modest increase from the $6.5 million the clinics received in previous year. There’s also been a small increase in funding to hire more judges to hear a backlog of black lung benefits claims, in hopes of speeding up the benefits process. Some miners have been forced to wait for several years before being awarded their full benefits.
In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers representing Appalachian coalfield states sent a letter to President Trump asking that funding for black lung clinics get an increase to the originally promised $10 million for the 2018 federal budget.
New dust exposure rules implemented over the last three years are aimed at reducing the dust miners encounter, and there’s hope that things actually have improved. Because of the latency in the onset of the disease, it is possible that the cases emerging now are the result of exposure that occurred before the new rules came into play.
That said, there are still concerns that the rules are insufficiently protective in regard to some critical issues, including exposure to silica dust, which is thought to be playing a large role in the resurgence of the disease. A bill introduced by four Democratic Congressman from West Virginia and Virginia would update mine safety standards regarding silica dust exposure, which can result from equipment cutting into layers of sandstone rock adjacent to coal seams.
- Benny Becker
The funding request for black lung clinics, the bill supporting miners’ pensions, and the RECLAIM act to invest in mining communities all enjoy support from both Democrats and Republicans. But they lack vocal support from the politician who has made miners a centerpiece of his political campaign -- President Trump.
While the president has been a frequent critic of coal-related regulations and made general statements of support for miners during the debate over health benefits, the White House has been largely silent on the proposals to assist coal country.
Fiscal conservatives, such as the Heritage Foundation, question federal government intervention in such areas as pensions. But that argument doesn’t sit well with many in coal country.
Charles Stanley, a former coal miner who’s now disabled by black lung disease, spoke to this point while sitting in a black lung clinic in Pennington Gap, Kentucky. Stanley said America needs to understand just how reliant it’s been on coal miners and the sacrifices they’ve made to provide the country with power, heat, and products such as steel.
“It was coal miners who put this nation on the map,” Stanley said. “Without coal there would have been no industrial revolution if it hadn’t come from the back of a coal miner.”