Economic Justice

Miners’ Benefits in Jeopardy if Congress Does Not Act

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund has been around for about forty years, providing benefits to miners and, in some cases, to their surviving dependents to help them recover from the increasingly prevalent and powerful disease pneumoconiosis. “Black Lung Disease” was coined as a term because of the way the dust buildup inside the lungs can make them appear black. The Disability Fund has been in financial jeopardy for years, with expenditures consistently exceeding revenue, but the situation is about to become worse in 2019 when the excise tax that resources the Fund is set to decrease by 55% despite the fact that more than 25,000 people rely on its benefits as of 2017. Recently the cases of Black Lund have been increasing

Funding for the Fund comes from the Black Lung Benefits Revenue Act of 1977, which assesses a tax on operators per ton of coal mined. Not all miners are eligible for benefits: some operators cover expenses related to the disease, but others do not, and some operators are no longer is existence, leaving their former miners with bills to pay on their own. This is where the Fund kicks in. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO),”The current tax rates are $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface-mined coal, up to 4.4 percent of the sales price. Therefore, if a ton of underground-mined coal is sold for less than $25, than the tax paid would be less than $1.10. For instance, if a ton of underground-mined coal sold for $20, than it would be taxed at 4.4 percent of the sales price, or $0.88” In some years, though, this income has covered less than 40% of the cost of the program, forcing it to borrow money from other funds, creating debt and resulting interest payments that take up even bigger chunks of its budget.

The same report by the GAO outlines various scenarios that would help maintain the Fund, ensuring that eligible miners who need its support are able to receive benefits. The proposal the Center for Coalfield Justice and our allies through the Alliance for Appalachia would support is an increase in the excise tax levied on mined coal by 25%. This increase would add $0.27 to the tax on underground-mined coal - literally spare change.

The Alliance for Appalachia is planning a trip to Washington DC in September to speak with senators and representatives from Kentucky to Pennsylvania, raising awareness and advocating for policies that would keep the Fund intact.


For more information on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund or on the upcoming advocacy trip, please contact Sarah Martik, our Campaign Coordinator, at smartik@coalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550x.1.

Get Your Marching Shoes Ready!

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Save the Date for Washington, PA People’s Climate March on September 8th. We are hosting the march with Washington County United, increasing access for our communities to participate in a national day of action.  We will be rising for Climate, Jobs, and Justice and demanding that our elected officials are voting to protect our communities from private corporations’ greed.

If you live in Washington or Greene County, you are living on the front-lines of fossil fuel extraction and the climate debate.  It is time to challenge the national narrative and show that people from the coalfields want and deserve clean air, clean water, and healthy jobs.

It is exciting that Washington, PA will join others, from Miami to Minneapolis to Mendocino, on September 8th to demand climate action from our leaders!

We are looking for our members and supports to be involved in planning and outreach for this event, so please consider getting involved! This is a great opportunity for those of you who want to be more active in the work CCJ does, as well as for students who are looking for volunteer hours for school or college requirements. Want to get involved or  have questions or ideas to share? Please contact Nick at CCJ at nick@coalfieldjustice.org.

Register Your Access to Broadband

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Beginning in February 2018, an 11-month study dubbed the “Pennsylvania Broadband Mapping Initiative” launched.  The study hopes to determine the amount of high-speed internet access that residents of rural Pennsylvania have and then provide potential solutions to the problems, based on previous models of success.  

The study is quick and easy.  All you need to do is:

  1. Access the website
  2. Click the “Start Test” button and,
  3. Wait less than 30 seconds.

The information published includes each device’s IP address but does not include personal identifying information about you as an Internet user.

More than 5.1 million tests — including more than 740,000 in the past three months — have already been conducted in PA since its inception in 2008. This previously collected data will provide a valuable baseline for the study that began on Feb. 1 and will continue to stretch throughout the rest of the calendar year.

The study will identify areas where broadband access does not exist, define characteristics of communities with lower levels of access, and offer examples of successful intervention that might be successful in Pennsylvania’s communities. We know that access to fast internet is lacking in many communities in Greene and Washington Counties. Access to Information is vital and the internet is the best means for the spreading of information, so, it is very important that everyone has an opportunity for internet access.  

How should communities cope with the end of coal?

Photo of PA Route 18 (Photo Credit: Jon Dawson)

Photo of PA Route 18 (Photo Credit: Jon Dawson)

Amelia Urry, Grist

"The Mon Valley in western Pennsylvania was once at the center of an industrial revolution that put the United States on the map, but you might have trouble picking out some of its towns on that map now.

“These communities have been neglected by everybody,” says Veronica Coptis, the executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice and a longtime resident of Greene County. She grew up among the emptied-out towns that first sprung up beside the steel factories and coal mines that once lined the Monongahela River for miles.

Now those steel plants are gone, and many of the mines have closed. The coal mines still in operation are largely mechanized, operated by an ever-dwindling number of non-unionized laborers. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in Greene and Washington Counties, works to protect the rights of people living in mining towns, filing legal challenges and advocating for better policy from the state government."

Read the full article at Grist. 

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.

The New Yorker: The Future of Coal Country

Bailey Mine Prep Plant (Photo Credit: CCJ)

Bailey Mine Prep Plant (Photo Credit: CCJ)

By Eliza Griswold, The New Yorker

One Sunday morning, just after deer-hunting season ended, Veronica Coptis, a community organizer in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania, climbed onto her father’s four-wheeler. She set off for a ridge a quarter of a mile from her parents’ small farmhouse, where she was brought up with her brother and two sisters. “Those are coyote tracks,” she called over the engine noise, pointing down at a set of fresh paw prints.

At the crest of the ridge, she stopped along a dirt track and scanned in both directions for security guards. Around her stretched a three-mile wasteland of valleys. Once an untouched landscape of white oak and shagbark hickory, it now belonged to Consol Energy and served as the refuse area for the Bailey Mine Complex, the largest underground coal mine in the United States.

Read full story at the New Yorker

A Just Transition: Creating the New Economy in Eastern Kentucky

Our allies Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) and the Mountain Associations for Community Economic Development (MACED) and their supporters are doing powerful work to build a clean and just new economy in eastern Kentucky. Check out this video that shows real examples of what can happen as coal jobs are lost to a dwindling market.