OPINION: Whatever Happened to the RECLAIM Act? – by Melissa Pack Moran and Rebecca Powell

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Whatever Happened to the RECLAIM Act?  Mitch McConnell Killed It.

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OPINION: Whatever Happened to the RECLAIM Act? - by Melissa Pack Moran and Rebecca Powell 2

We are two women who have different connections to Appalachia, but who share a passion for the mountains.  Melissa grew up in Van Lear, the home of Loretta Lynn.  Her mom and dad still reside there. Many of her relatives worked in the mines, including both of her grandfathers. Rebecca lived much of her adult life in the hills of North Carolina. While we have different histories, we have one thing in common:  We love the mountains, and we love the mountain people.  And we are heartbroken that the mountain region is always exploited, always left behind, always overlooked by folks in Washington. Take the RECLAIM Act, for example.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the RECLAIM Act?  Most of you probably remember this bill and had high hopes for its passage.  It was introduced by Congressman Hal Rogers in February of 2016 and was designed to convert $1 billion of the Abandoned Mine Lands into economic development grants for Appalachia. It even had bipartisan support.  Back in 2016, however, it seems that the governor of Wyoming was upset that the RECLAIM Act would redistribute money from Wyoming mining operations to the coal regions of Kentucky, and because the key members of the Energy and Commerce Committee were western Republicans, it was never passed.

Three years later, on April 9, 2019, the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC) published a press release with the title:  $1 Billion RECLAIM Act Gains Momentum, Is Re-Introduced in Congress at Coal Communities’ Urging.  The article claimed that “The RECLAIM Act would invest $1 billion in projects that clean up abandoned coal mines and waters polluted by them, and catalyzes community development projects on reclaimed sites.” The article goes on to state that “[s]upport for the bill is rooted in communities struggling with abandoned mines and the decline of coal jobs, including in east Kentucky where people have been calling for the initiative since 2013.” 

Fast forward to July 2, 2020.  Another press release from the ACLC reads:  RECLAIM Act Passes the House as part of H.R.2, The Moving Forward Act.  Now, understand that the Moving Forward Act is a gigantic bill.  We tried to find the RECLAIM Act hidden within it. (Interesting how the legislative process works.) But with some help from a KY Congressional office, we spotted it, right there beginning on page 2404. The act says: 

The project, upon completion of reclamation, is intended to create favorable conditions for the economic development of the project site or create favorable conditions that promote the general welfare through economic and community development of the area in which the project is conducted. 

And under “Contribution to Future Economic or Community Development,” it reads: 

The project will be conducted in a community—‘‘(i) that has been adversely affected economically by a recent reduction in coal mining related activity, as demonstrated by employment data, per capita income, or other indicators of economic distress; or (ii) (I) that has historically relied on coal mining for a substantial portion of its economy; and (II) in which the economic contribution of coal mining has significantly declined.

The funds would be given to communities affected by a reduction in coal mining, to those in economic distress, to real communities in Kentucky that are hurting because of COVID and the decline of coal.  And this bill passed the US House of Representatives on July 1 of this year. 

It’s important to state that The Moving Forward Act also includes a reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund, which is set to expire in 2021. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth report that Kentucky has a backlog of 1,089 sites that would qualify for support from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund. The ACLC press release reads, “For years, residents and local elected officials have advocated for these bills as job creation measures to support coal communities as they faced job loss and economic decline due to a disappearing coal industry. Over 20 local governments in Eastern Kentucky have signed resolutions in support of the RECLAIM Act.” These measures also wouldn’t cost taxpayers a single dime.  Not one single dime. It simply accelerates the release of funds already collected to clean up old mine sites. 

So one would think that, given the fact that Mitch McConnell represents Kentucky and has a tremendous amount of power in the Senate, The Moving Forward Act would be first on his list of priorities, right?  Think again. Citizens report that they have knocked on McConnell’s door time after time and he has turned them away.  In fact, McConnell has already stated that he will not even bring it forward to the Senate floor for a debate. The reason?  It includes many provisions that Republicans cannot support. 

So please tell us Mitch.  Which provisions would Republicans not support?  Essentially, The Moving Forward Act is a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure.  In addition to providing money to clean up abandoned coal mines and putting miners to work, the bill includes other measures that would help rural Kentucky: (1) $130 billion for high poverty schools; (2) $100 billion to deliver affordable high-speed broadband Internet access to all parts of the country; (3) $25 billion to ensure that all communities have clean drinking water; (4) $30 billion to upgrade local hospitals and help community health centers respond to health emergencies; and (5) $25 billion to modernize US postal operations.  

Rural Kentuckians desperately need these benefits, yet Mitch is the one keeping us from getting them. Our own senator, who is supposed to be representing OUR interests, is once again telling us that we don’t matter. We keep hearing cries to “drain the swamp.” Perhaps we need to start with the Leader of the Swamp–Mitch McConnell.  

Submitted by Melissa Pack Moran and Rebecca Powell

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