Following all the partisan rancor on the Hill lately, yesterday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the House Natural Resources Committee was a breath of fresh air. It focused on two important bills that can help Appalachian communities transition to a post-carbon economy in a way that addresses the harmful environmental legacy of coal mining and promotes meaningful economic opportunities for members of those communities.
Drawing on their expertise and experience, Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholar Emily Hammond reviewed the bills and offered suggestions on how they could be strengthened to better accomplish these goals.
The first of the bills is the Community Reclamation Partnerships Act. In their testimony, Hammond provides a vivid example of the Cheat River to explain why this measure is so important to cleaning up the abandoned mines that still litter Appalachia. Long celebrated by white water rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts, the Cheat was left blighted by a harmful form of water pollution from coal mines called “acid mine drainage” (AMD).
In response, community members came together to form the Friends of the Cheat, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the river by using the tools available under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) — the primary federal law that governs mine cleanups. The problem is that SMCRA requires cleanups to be fully compliant with applicable Clean Water Act standards. That makes sense for when coal companies undertake cleanups of their own mines, but not when volunteer organizations with limited resources do.
As Hammond explains, the Community Reclamation Partnerships Act is designed to address this very scenario. It specifically covers groups like Friends of the Cheat, and it clarifies that the otherwise beneficial cleanups such groups undertake need not meet applicable Clean Water Act standards.
But, as Hammond notes, the bill could be strengthened. Specifically, one provision authorizes states to enter into memoranda of understanding between their natural resources agencies and their federal government counterparts for the purposes of coordinating on mine cleanups. Significantly, the bill seeks to democratize this process by permitting public comment on the memoranda before their approval. Hammond argues that this provision could be strengthened if amended to explicitly require the state to respond to any public comments it receives.
The second bill is the Mining Schools Act. This legislation would create a new grant program for eligible mining schools to support specified educational opportunities related to mining. As Hammond notes in their testimony, a key feature of this bill is that it would address some of the environmental harms associated with mining, such as through effective reclamation practices.
Hammond goes on to note that the purposes of the bill would be further advanced if the grant program could be used to support the training of students in community engagement and communication skills. As they observe, such skills have been vital to the success of the community cleanup efforts being pursued by the Friends of the Cheat. The Mining Schools Act could help ensure that such collaboration between the mining industry and affected communities becomes a regular feature in the future Appalachian economy.
This hearing in general, and Hammond’s testimony in particular, offer some important lessons on energy democracy. More importantly, the bills discussed at the hearing suggest that energy democracy — that energy policy should be truly of, by, and for the people — can provide needed common ground in these otherwise politically divided times. Let’s hope that they offer a harbinger of what is to come.