According to Houser, Bordoff, and Marsters, 2017, West Virginia’s total coal job loss from Q4 2011 to Q4 2016 was 12,533. This has been a scary time for many Appalachian people. Severe environmental damage has been done, and social problems, such as drug addiction, continue to threaten their future.

To help combat these issues, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, a regional collaboration, is pursuing mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia that are responsive to community needs and interests—and that accelerate the growth of new, sustainable sectors. Their report discusses 20 innovate projects that would clean up abandoned coal mine lands and give them new life as sustainable agriculture businesses, solar farms, or other economic ventures.

The coalition consists of lead organizations in four states—Appalachian Voices in Virginia, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, and Rural Action in Ohio—and a regional technical expert, Downstream Strategies, also based in West Virginia.

Groups involved in this effort seek to learn from the past four decades of mined-land repair and reuse while creating projects that benefit the residents of the Appalachian coalfields in a variety of ways for decades to come. This is accomplished not by defining a handful of types of development projects as acceptable, but rather by establishing guiding principles and using those to filter concepts that meet the criteria of the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition.

Joey James, a senior strategist at Downstream Strategies, serves as the regional technical consultant on the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition project, and has a strong motivation for being involved in this endeavor.

“On a personal level, I’m involved in this effort because I care about the future of my home,” he emphasized. “It’s no secret that Appalachia is hemorrhaging its young people. As a twenty-something individual living and working in the region, I want to see more people my age flocking to the region for the same reasons I have. I see the great potential in this place, and I want to help other people see that potential.”

According to the report, Many Voices, Many Solutions: Innovative Mine Reclamation in Central Appalachia, there are 166 Appalachian counties within the project area. Cumulatively, these counties represent a population of over 5.7 million people. There are no Attainment counties within the project area, and nearly 40 percent of the people living in the project area live within an At-Risk or Distressed county. Around five percent live within a Competitive county.

“Cleaning up these sites presents a unique opportunity to turn environmental and public health and safety liabilities into economic assets,” James said. “Recent policy initiatives, such as the federal Abandoned Mine Land [AML] Pilot Program, through which Congress appropriated $105 million in 2017 and 2018 for mine reclamation projects that spur on-site economic development, have expanded the amount of available funding and stimulated regional interest in redeveloping AML sites for economic and community benefit.”

Quantifying the economic impact of these investments is challenging, as many of the projects have yet to receive funding or be built. However, utilizing the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ RIMS II multipliers, the Coalition can see that the cumulative impact of project spending during development and construction alone is great.

“As a regional coalition, the biggest challenge we face is aligning the funding goals and priorities of each state with our vision for the future of the region,” added James. “One of our ultimate goals is to get the most funding for the most projects. Under programs like the AML Pilot Program, states are given a lot of discretion in funding decisions. A project that can receive a lot of money in one state may not necessarily receive any money in another. Getting a grapple on the differences in funding priorities in different states has probably been the most challenging part of this endeavor, and, as you can imagine, this landscape is constantly changing.”

Incrementally, twenty projects identified by coalition members would cost over $38 million; however, if these projects were funded, a total economic output from project spending would be valued at nearly $84 million. These projects would provide over $22 million in wages to employees, support almost 543 full- and part-time jobs across the region, and improve regional GDP (value-added) by over $44 million. Further, most projects plan for direct/onsite employment after construction/development.

Empowering the People

Jacob Hannah, conservation coordinator of Coalfield Development Corporation, represents Coalfield as the West Virginia partner to the Reclaim Appalachia Coalition in helping write remediation material and advocate for just transition solutions.

When asked why this effort is different than the previous attempts, he explained, “As a multi-state and multi-organization coalition, we benefit each other by sharing expertise and collaborating on a collective-impact level that couldn’t be achieved on an individual enterprise level. Our ambitions go beyond state lines, strengthening and diversifying the abilities of what we’re all fighting for.”

Hannah believes there is more optimism for this endeavor because the pieces are in place and the time is right, as Appalachia currently basks in the international spotlight. The region is primed and ready for change and restoration—the work is an answer to that call for a better life. Real tangible outcomes are coming forth from it—rock-crushers creating topsoil on strip mines, permaculture farming, solar, and numerous other projects are what add confidence behind the optimism for Appalachians.

The regions have been used as “extraction states” by external corporations and entities that benefited from the resource-rich lands. Now that the change is coming from within, by Appalachians through projects that hire Appalachians to create opportunities, markets, and development for Appalachians, those who’ve lived with the poverty-stricken outcomes of abandoned coal regions now rightfully stand to benefit the most from this effort.

The mission is to train and empower local people to create, operate, and manage the initiatives brought to the regions. This avoids creating markets in the vacuum of demand by incorporating the people of the potential markets as part of the driving force for the demand itself, which ultimately causes the economy to be diversified and localized through the region, instead of being entirely dependent on a flagship economy like coal.

The future of innovative mine reclamation brings excitement to help strengthen the region’s toolkit to further diversify and invest in its assets.

“If our coalition can identify and manifest real, relevant solutions to abandoned mine lands in a way that benefits and empowers the region, then this expertise and know-how can be shared, replicated, and adapted to be implemented throughout Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and the Appalachian region,” noted Hannah. “Instead of trying to blindly reinvent the solution-wheel, we can replicate and adapt it with the help and guidance of our coalition partners.”

For Hannah, the future for these AML sites represents a very attractive draw. “It’s a canvas for development and possibility,” he affirmed, “incorporating everything from cultural heritage preservation to cutting-edge energy technologies to integrated agricultural systems.”

— For more information, visit Reclaim Appalachia.

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