A legislative analysis: Part II of II
By David Loomis
When I’m dead and the ages shall roll
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.
— “Dark As a Dungeon,” by Merle Travis, 1946
INDIANA — The danger and drudgery of coal mining, it turns out, is not eternal. It’s not so much for lack of supply as it is for lack of demand that the region’s mother lode will remain in the ground.
Since its peak in 2008, U.S. coal production has declined by about one-third as electric utilities switch to solar, wind and natural gas, all in spite of President Trump’s attempts to boost the industry.
Here in Appalachia, a century-old football rivalry between Indiana and California universities of Pennsylvania has been sponsored since 2009 by a coal industry trade group. But Saturday’s Coal Bowl is an anachronism.
IUP recently established an environmental engineering program whose graduates will use “science and math … to protect public health and the climate.” Those grads can address coal’s economic and environmental legacy in the abandoned mines that tar the region.
One-third of the nation’s abandoned mine lands are in Pennsylvania, according to the director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation. Thousands of hazardous mine sites await remediation. Every year, the agency receives about 800 requests for help with the sites.
AMONG THE CALLS for help is Homer City’s. Its borough council on July 2 endorsed a non-profit environmental group petition by the region’s local governments seeking renewal of a 40-year-old federal mine-reclamation law that supports state clean-up programs like Pennsylvania’s.
“Yellow Creek and Two Lick Creek … are still polluted,” said borough manager Rob Nymick. “I’m not sure everyone understands the economic impact that those two streams can provide not just to Homer City Borough but to six other municipalities in Indiana County. We’re worried about jobs leaving, but we’re worried about our youth leaving.”
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-15th District, represents those local governments that are heavily impacted by abandoned mines: Indeed, his district – our district – ranks first in the nation.
And now, Thompson, too, has endorsed renewal of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The law is set to expire in 2021; renewal would extend it through 2036.
“Pennsylvania’s heritage is rooted in coal, which powered an industrial revolution and won two World Wars,” Thompson said in a Sept. 10 news release. “With these great advancements also came the need for environmental restoration, and while we have made great progress over the past four decades, there remains much to be done” to “ensure continued support for critical reclamation activities, while also providing both environmental and economic benefits to coal regions.”
THOMPSON’S SUPPORT of the legislation is an act of bipartisanship. The measure’s primary sponsor is Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8th District. Supporters include 28 House Democrats and 12 Republicans. Ten of the state’s divided 18-member U.S. House delegation are co-sponsors.
But critics report that the proposed legislation lets coal companies off the hook by failing to increase the fees they are charged for cleaning up their messes:
— The coal industry’s general decline has halved its fees over the past decade.
— The fees have never been indexed for inflation (which otherwise would have quadrupled them by now).
— And the federal fee collection process has been subject to mandatory spending cuts imposed by Congress in 2013.
All of which amounts to another Merle Travis mining lament. Meanwhile, coal interests have been generous to Rep. Thompson. The shadowy, partisan and coal-friendly American Energy Alliance, for example, awarded him a 100 percent rating on its 2017-2018 scorecard. Energy and natural-resources interests contributed $126,916 during his 2018 election cycle, not counting oil and gas interests, which contributed $70,600. (Labor interests gave $23,500.)
SO, A KEY to truly bipartisan and thorough cleanup of his district’s worst-in-the-nation abandoned-coal-mine inventory is Rep. Thompson’s support for stronger fee provisions of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act renewal. A better bill would benefit not only coal-mining interests but also his constituents in Homer City, among other impacted communities in the 15th Congressional District.
An earlier version of this story identified a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania as “Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, R-8th District.” Rep. Cartwright is a Democrat.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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