RE­CLAIM Act won’t mean­ing fully help coal com­mu­ni­ties

Northern Berks Patriot Item - - OPINION - By Ni­co­las Loris Guest colum­nist Ni­co­las Loris is an econ­o­mist at The Her­itage Foun­da­tion in Wash­ing­ton, DC.

Right now, Congress is con­sid­er­ing a bill with the ap­peal­ing name of the RE­CLAIM Act. It’s ac­tu­ally a real mouth­ful: Re­vi­tal­iz­ing the Economy of Coal Com­mu­ni­ties by Lever­ag­ing Lo­cal Ac­tiv­i­ties and In­vest­ing More.

As pos­i­tive as that sounds, it would ac­tu­ally al­lo­cate coal tax funds away from their in­tended pur­pose of re­me­di­at­ing aban­doned mine lands and re­duc­ing risks to pub­lic health and safety. And it would also ex­ac­er­bate well-known prob­lems with fed­er­ally funded ef­forts to stim­u­late cer­tain re­gions of the economy.

Cur­rently, a fed­eral pro­gram called Aban­doned Mine Land Recla­ma­tion im­poses a tax on coal-min­ing op­er­a­tions in the United States to pay for the cleanup of aban­doned mines across the coun­try. The pro­gram re­me­di­ates sites mined prior to 1977 — be­fore any law stip­u­lated how mines should be re­claimed.

The RE­CLAIM Act would au­tho­rize the Sec­re­tary of the In­te­rior Depart­ment to de­vote an ad­di­tional $200 mil­lion per year be­yond reg­u­lar dis­tri­bu­tions to “eco­nomic re­vi­tal­iza­tion” pro­jects for dis­tressed coal-min­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

And at­tach­ing eco­nomic re­vi­tal­iza­tion and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment to mine recla­ma­tion would pri­or­i­tize po­lit­i­cally en­tic­ing pro­jects over ones that could ac­tu­ally re­duce en­vi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health risks.

Al­though the pro­posed law would tech­ni­cally still fund recla­ma­tion pro­jects, the Of­fice of Sur­face Min­ing Recla­ma­tion and En­force­ment would al­lo­cate fund­ing far be­yond the bounds of recla­ma­tion.

In fact, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has al­ready im­ple­mented a pi­lot pro­gram with goals sim­i­lar to the RE­CLAIM Act, and the re­sults were pre­dictable. Wash­ing­ton dished out tens of mil­lions of tax­payer dol­lars for things like job train­ing pro­grams. One project, a $1.9 mil­lion wa­ter sup­ply line for a camp­ground, aimed to cre­ate 10 to 15 jobs and “in­crease eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment through ad­ven­ture tourism.”

Such ef­forts go far be­yond the aban­doned mine pro­gram’s in­tended pur­pose. If it be­comes law, the RE­CLAIM Act would sim­ply in­crease fund­ing for po­lit­i­cally pre­ferred pro­jects rather than ad­dress more press­ing, en­vi­ron­men­tally at-risk ar­eas.

The leg­is­la­tion would also du­pli­cate ex­ist­ing fed­eral, state, and pri­vate sec­tor ef­forts de­signed to in­ject eco­nomic growth into strug­gling coal com­mu­ni­ties. In 2017, the Ap­palachian Re­gional Com­mis­sion spent $152.3 mil­lion of tax­payer money across the 13 Ap­palachian states.

And to help coal com­mu­ni­ties ad­versely af­fected by an on­slaught of fed­eral reg­u­la­tions tar­get­ing coal, Congress and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion launched the Part­ner­ships for Op­por­tu­nity and Workforce and Eco­nomic Re­vi­tal­iza­tion Ini­tia­tive (POWER) in 2015.

Since its in­cep­tion, the pro­gram has spent $94 mil­lion across 250 coun­ties.

Un­for­tu­nately, fed­eral job train­ing pro­grams have had dis­mal rates of suc­cess. Last Novem­ber, Reuters re­ported on low par­tic­i­pa­tion in the POWER Ini­tia­tive. In two Penn­syl­va­nia coun­ties, sign-ups for re­train­ing pro­grams reached only 15 per­cent of ca­pac­ity. Only 20 peo­ple signed up for 95 slots in a com­puter cod­ing class.

If pol­i­cy­mak­ers want to en­act re­form to help coal com­mu­ni­ties, they should elim­i­nate the plethora of fed­eral reg­u­la­tions that sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease the costs of min­ing coal, building new plants, and op­er­at­ing ex­ist­ing plants.

Many of these reg­u­la­tions are de­void of any mean­ing­ful en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits and du­pli­cate state ef­forts to pro­tect air and wa­ter qual­ity.

De­spite pro­po­nents mar­ket­ing the RE­CLAIM Act as an eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­vi­tal­iza­tion, divert­ing funds in­tended for aban­doned mine land from high-pri­or­ity pub­lic health and safety sites will only ex­ac­er­bate the is­sues that plague the pro­gram.

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