Reclaiming our brownfields with Federal funds

For people living in Appalachia, seeing rundown power plants, giant slag piles, and rusted mining infrastructure is part of everyday life.  The people who live in the brownfields have become so accustomed to seeing these in our communities that we sometimes don’t see them for what they are:  eyesores and missed opportunities.  With the decline in coal consumption and investment leading to an eventual total loss of the coal industry, these very same communities face an economic future that is scary – which is why the idea of reclaiming these areas has been introduced in Congress in three different bills (two in the Senate, one in the House), called the RECLAIM Act.

Details about what exactly is in the RECLAIM Act are difficult to find if you only try Google, and the political details are a little unclear.  What’s important to look at when you talk about RECLAIM are the ideas presented in the different forms of the bill.  Funding for projects is important, and all versions of the bill allocate $1 billion for reclamation projects.  This funding then raises some questions:  what lands can use RECLAIM funds, what are the guidelines for the projects, and who should be involved in project proposals? The answers to these questions are where the political issues come in. Let’s look at the background of the bill, then continue to evaluate the bills that are in Congress right now.  

RECLAIM relies on the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) to indicate which types of sites can receive funding.  SMCRA sets out three different types of sites: Priority 1 sites deal with the protection of public health, safety, and property from extreme danger of adverse effects of coal mining practices; Priority 2 sites deal with the protection of public health and safety from adverse effects of coal mining practices; and, Priority 3 sites deal with the restoration of land and water resources and the environment previously degraded by adverse effects of coal mining practices including measures for the conservation and development of soil, water (excluding channelization), woodland, fish and wildlife, recreation resources and agricultural productivity.  In extremely simple terms, Priority 1 and 2 sites are dangerous (P1 more so than P2), but Priority 3 sites are just bad, not dangerous, and in need of some TLC.  SMCRA also created the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR), which has the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) funding.  AML funding - which is a separate budget - already goes to Priority 1, 2, and 3 sites, with the understanding that P1 and P2 sites take priority because they are dangerous.  RECLAIM would add $1 billion to the state AML agencies: in Pennsylvania, this is the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program as part of the Department of Environmental Protection.  In summary:  DEP already receives federal funding to work on AML projects, focusing mostly on P1 and P2 sites, and then continuing with projects on P3 sites if there is funding left over.  RECLAIM would allocate an additional $330 million to PA.  

There are some provisions that are important to creating the most effective law possible.  There are various nonprofit organizations and state agencies that are on-the-ground, working with and within communities to find effective ways to reclaim lands and create economic opportunities.  These agencies and organizations are all considered stakeholders because they have a vested interest in the community already.  The most effective form of the law would ideally have provisions that include stakeholder collaboration:  it wouldn’t only be the government agencies determining which projects need funding or in what direction a project should go.  This is extremely important for community engagement.  These reclamation projects should be something that communities actually want, not something that is forced upon them.  Additionally, when evaluating plans, it is not enough to clean up a mess and let that be good enough.  We are able to clean up abandoned mine lands, of course, but we also have an opportunity to create long-term economic growth at the same time by carefully selecting and planning the projects.  Instead of cleaning up a sludge pile by only planting grass, why not grow grape vines that don’t need the same kind of root system as trees but could help a local vineyard or winery?  Or why not install solar panels on the reclaimed CRDAs?  Economic diversification needs to be included in the language of the bill.  Most importantly, all of these ideas - stakeholder collaboration and economic diversification - need to apply to all sites, P1, 2, and 3 alike.  

Now that we have some background, let’s look at the actual legislation that is on the table.  There have been different versions of the bill that have been introduced in both the House and the Senate in the past, but the active bill that should be focused on is H.R. 1731. This bill was introduced by Representative Hal Rogers (R-KY), and it included language for stakeholder collaboration that was left out of previous bills, but it left out funding for Priority 1 and 2 sites, which means that it would only be effective for about 25% of the country’s abandoned coal mines. “In its current form, the bill promotes the first goal of restoring abandoned mines, however, H.R. 1731 as written does not sufficiently promote the second stated goal of the RECLAIM Act:  spurring economic diversification on reclaimed sites. This is because the current language does not incentivize tying mine reclamation with creating long-term economic projects on ‘Priority 1 and 2’ Abandoned Mine Land sites,” says Fritz Boettner of Downstream Strategies.  In order for us to get to an “ideal” bill, it would need amendments.  There are two different companion bills in committee in the Senate, one from Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and one from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).  These versions of the bill have not seen the same traction as the House bill, so the House bill is the one we need to look at most closely.

An amendment was recently passed in the House National Resources Committee with a new proposal from Representative Don Beyer (D-VA).  This amendment alters the language of the bill to include Priority 1 and 2 sites in RECLAIM.  The bill was just passed out of committee and will be heading to the House floor.  There are, however, some problems.

The National Mining Association (NMA) has recently come out in opposition to this bill. “The most recent proposals would accelerate the distribution of the Fund balance to promote economic diversification and development. Such proposals would take the Fund beyond its purpose and well beyond the competency of OSM [the Office of Surface Mining] and its state agency counterparts,” says Hal Quinn, President, and CEO of NMA.  

Take Action: Call your legislators to show support for H.R.1731 and the Beyer Amendment.  Ask as many questions about the bill as you want, and let them know that you want the best option for reclaiming the brownfields in Pennsylvania.