Pennsylvania’s coal fueled an industrial revolution, built dozens of cities, provided affordable heating for millions of homes and helped win two world wars. We all enjoy a better life because of the hard work done by generations of the commonwealth’s coal miners and the innovations made possible by their efforts and sacrifices.
These benefits did not come without a cost. In a bygone era where production was the only goal, the environmental risks were not understood. Modern technologies to mitigate these risks were not yet developed, and in the rush to the future, unintended consequences were not considered. While deep appreciation of those early miners is ingrained in our history, Pennsylvania is faced with legacy issues stemming from hundreds of abandoned coal mines.
In 1977, Congress established the Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation Fund, which required coal companies to pay a fee on every ton produced. For nearly 40 years more than $10 billion has been collected into the fund, which is used for reclamation and restoration efforts on lands affected by legacy mining. Today, more than $8 billion has been sent to communities that have abandoned mine lands in states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The AML fund currently contains nearly $2.4 billion, which can only be released through congressional action. Despite a history of working in a collaborative manner to address these clean up challenges, Pennsylvania still has more abandoned mines than any other state in the nation.
For these reasons, I have worked with my colleagues to introduce a bipartisan bill, known as the RECLAIM Act. This bill has set a goal of releasing $1 billion in AML funds to the states, with nearly one third available to Pennsylvania over the next five years. This will double Pennsylvania’s annual allotment and will have countless environmental and economic benefits, and can be done without any cost to the taxpayer.
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The RECLAIM Act has not only partnered Democrats and Republicans, but has also brought coal producers and environmental advocates to the table. R. John Dawes, executive director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, has said, “This bill represents a huge opportunity to accelerate the restoring of those lands while creating jobs and providing economic opportunity in the communities where they exist. Providing ecosystem functions to these lands — whether it’s for replanted forests or agricultural purposes — is a huge benefit to quality of life issues for citizens of Pennsylvania.”
Nonprofits and charitable organizations in Pennsylvania have been steadfast in their commitment to reclaim our abandoned mines, but they cannot do it alone. We must fast track the release of these funds to aid in the effort. In doing so, we will create jobs in our coal towns and boost our regional economy while ensuring that streams are restored and viable for future generations.
On April 5, the House Natural Resources Committee held a legislative hearing to receive testimony from stakeholders on how the law can better promote economic revitalization and development in economically distressed communities, through the reclamation and restoration of land and water resources. This is a welcomed step forward for the RECLAIM Act. Congress has a great opportunity to do right by Pennsylvania and increase the federal commitment to reclamation projects and I look forward to continue working in partnership with my colleagues to make this a reality.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson represents Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District. He is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.