Thursday, September 29, 2016

Op-Ed: Federal RECLAIM Act Can Help In Reshaping Northeast PA’s Economy

By: Robert Hughes, Executive Director, Eastern PA Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation

The RECLAIM Act, currently before Congress, is an opportunity to create both immediate and permanent jobs in communities facing severe economic hardship due to the loss of coal mining jobs and lagging local economies.
In February 2016, Congressman Hal Rogers led a bipartisan group of legislators in introducing the RECLAIM Act -- HR 4456. The bill would use $1 billion to put laid-off coal miners and others to work reclaiming mines and creating long-term economic opportunities.
As it moves and gains co-sponsorships in a bipartisan fashion, it will be vital and important to see that the act maintains the provisions to ensure, above all else, that communities feeling the hardships ultimately see the benefits that are tangible, such as jobs, workforce development training, environmental reclamation and restoration, boosts to the local economies, and lastly, an improved quality of life.
Since the introduction of the RECLAIM Act, 17 cosponsors, Republicans and Democrats from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, and as far west as Colorado, have lined up behind the legislation.
There are still some important legislators here in Pennsylvania that we would like to see sign on to the bill due to the number of abandoned mines and polluted mine water impacts found in Northeastern and Northcentral Pennsylvania, particularly Congressmen Thomas Marino, (R-Williamsport) and Lou Barletta (R-Hazleton).
There’s a lot to like about the RECLAIM Act.
It would provide an economic shot-in-the-arm at a time when communities are reeling from massive layoffs in the coal industry. Even the cogeneration industry is taking a hit with the boom for the Marcellus Shale gas play in Pennsylvania.
We’re not looking for a band-aid approach to creating jobs and economic development. We’re talking about reusing former abandoned mine landscapes that have little value in terms of real estate when left unreclaimed and lack the British Thermal Units (BTUs) that make some culm banks attractive to cogeneration plants.
The policy would spur economic projects in agriculture, energy, recreational tourism and more on reclaimed sites.
These projects could help create permanent local jobs and currently in Congress there are no proposals that are providing immediate job stimulus in the coalfields.
The benefits aren’t just economic either. It would clean up hundreds of environmental problems on thousands of acres of abandoned mine lands, such as sedimentation issues, flooding, subsidence caused by abandoned surface mines and once thriving trout streams that continue to be polluted by abandoned mine drainage discharges.
The $1 billion for the bill currently resides in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, money previously paid by the coal industry to reclaim land damaged by mining. The act would use this existing money to, quite literally, create economic opportunities out of environmental problems for the next five years.
We want more of our legislators on both sides to see this proposal as a win-win.
The Eastern PA Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation is puzzled why more Pennsylvania legislators have yet to sign on to the bill that could provide this much-needed support to Pennsylvania’s coal-mining-impacted communities and watersheds.
The RECLAIM Act is only one piece of the effort to build a bright future, but it could surely play a role in shaping Northeastern Pennsylvania’s next economy.
As such, it should be guided by principles that seek to build strong, healthy communities. Principles like generating stable, meaningful jobs, fostering inclusion and collaboration, respecting our heritage and promoting innovation and broadly held local wealth.
The legislation will be best suited to achieve stated goals of growing local economies and cleaning up environmental problems if the final language includes two main provisions.
First, it should ensure economic benefits reach communities with significant economic need, and that these benefits stay in the local community.
Second, it should ensure a variety of groups — especially community members in directly impacted areas — have a voice in shaping how the program is implemented at the State level. This includes shaping the vision and priorities for what types of economic reclamation projects should be funded.
EPCAMR is one regional non-profit organization with a 20-year history and dedication to reclaiming abandoned mine lands and rivers and streams impacted by abandoned mines willing to continue to provide that type of guidance, advice, and technical assistance and outreach to our partners in our region.
We have a long-term trusted relationship with Conservation Districts, watershed partners, community organizations, and local governments at all levels, where we’ve acted as a liaison to state and federal government agencies on mine land reclamation issues for the past two decades.
EPCAMR is just one of many partners and a number of groups, including the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and others throughout the Appalachian region, who have put together a set of priorities for the RECLAIM Act that demonstrate why these and other provisions are needed.
A billion-dollar investment in coal communities over the next five years is an opportunity that isn’t afforded often, and can’t be wasted, like the waste coal piles that continue to cast long, dark, and bleak shadows over our communities.
It’s time for the shadows of our past mining practice to disappear and our landscapes to be reclaimed under a new economy of environmental restoration, reclamation, and redevelopment that suits the purposes of the local economies that have been stagnant for far too long.
Robert Hughes is Executive Director of the Eastern PA Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation based in Ashley, Luzerne County.  He can be contacted by sending email to: rhughes@epcamr.org or call 570-371-3522.
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