Ted Boettner: Congress Must Act to Revitalize Appalachian Coal Communities

The Hill Blog - For more than a century, Appalachian coal communities have given more to the American dream and received less in return than any other region of our country. They’ve fueled our expansion westward, driven the industrial revolution, and powered our way to victory in two World Wars. At the same time, Appalachians have suffered from painful boom and bust cycles, risked their lives on a daily basis, and live in an area that remains one of the poorest regions in our nation. Read

While we can’t undo the past, we can build a brighter future that honors the sacrifices and hard work of Appalachian coal mining communities by ensuring everyone prospers from a growing America and cleaner energy. That’s why senators and House members representing Appalachian areas must strongly push for investments to help coal communities diversify their economies in the 2016 federal budget.

Historically, Appalachia and its residents have relied heavily on the coal mining industry whose operations are now fading. While debates will continue on the exact cause of coal’s decline in the region – declining coal reserves and productivity, competition from cheap natural gas and western coal, and public demand for clean energy - this should not hold us back from making the critical investments necessary to propel Appalachia forward.

Appalachian coal communities are ripe for regeneration. People across the region are moving forward on a variety of initiatives, but often lack the capital necessary to take them to scale. Federal investments in things like small business development, education and job training, and sustainable forestry would bring new opportunities to hard hit areas of the region that have been struggling for decades to diversify their economies. Funding for these economic development programs could come in part from Abandoned Mine Land reclamation funds, which has a balance today of $2.5 billion.

We must also put more effort into protecting the legacy of those miners who have already given decades to the coal industry by protecting their pensions and healthcare benefits. Ensuring that coal miners and their families can enter retirement with financial dignity should be at the top of the priority list for the members of Congress that frequently speak on the need to stand with coal workers. And in a true showing of good faith, we’ve seen some members make real efforts toward that end.

Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) in the House, for example, recently cosponsored a bipartisan bill aimed at assisting displaced coal miners with retraining programs that can help in their transition to new opportunities. The McKinley-Welch bill would not only help young, healthy miners compete in their changing economic landscapes, but would also give a lifeline to workers that have spent decades working for the coal industry that have families to support and retirement to save toward. On the Senate side, there is also the much-lauded bipartisan legislation from Sens. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), which goes even further in helping coal workers and their families by funding pension health benefits to retired miners.

These members aren’t doing anything new, federal policies to support economic transitions have been happening for decades. There is a long history of federal investments to help support workers and communities adjust to transition - including transition assistance for railroad workers, tobacco farmers, communities dependent on military bases that had to be closed, and timber harvesting regions in the Pacific Northwest.

In light of this history, the urgency to spur economic diversification and help regenerate the West Virginia coalfields could not be greater. In my state of West Virginia, the impact of coal’s decline is leading to thousands of job losses, falling state and local revenues, and more communities in distress. We now have the highest unemployment rate in the nation and are the leading nation in population loss.

This is why we need the continued support of our Congress - especially the delegation from the Appalachian region, including Sens. Manchin, Capito, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), as well as influential congressmen like Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) - to put strong transition plans to work in order to help revitalize our communities. While there is no silver bullet to solving our problems, investments that provide a foundation for future economic success while respecting the legacy, and the pensions, of workers across the region are a vital step forward.


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