Deb Haaland: It’s time to invest in WV coal communities (Opinion)

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As I travel throughout America, I am filled with hope as I see businesses open and communities recovering. Thanks to the passage of the American Rescue Plan and making progress in defeating COVID-19, economic growth is up and unemployment is down.

The nation’s ongoing economic recovery is opening opportunities to help stabilize and empower workers who have faced economic instability since before the pandemic.

Throughout my travels as Interior Secretary, I have seen firsthand how hardworking coal communities that helped power our country are now facing significant challenges in restoring their community environments and retooling toward developing a robust and sustainable clean energy future.

The Biden-Harris administration is committed to helping working families, often in rural communities, who face hazardous pollution, toxic water levels and land subsidence both during mining and long after coal companies have moved on.

Commonsense policies like those outlined in President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better Agenda will help revitalize these local economies and support reclamation jobs, all while addressing environmental impacts from these legacy developments.

The Administration’s proposals contain historic investments in addressing legacy pollution, including $16 billion to reclaim abandoned mines and cap oil and natural gas wells. This investment is urgently needed. In West Virginia there are at least 8,000 known abandoned coal mine features, over 4,600 documented orphan wells and nearly 10,000 more believed to be waiting to be found and properly plugged.

Over 800,000 West Virginians live within one mile of an abandoned mine site according to an abandoned mine land report.

By partnering with local and state officials, community members and other stakeholders, federal efforts to reclaim abandoned mine lands will help communities eliminate dangerous conditions and the pollution caused by past coal mining, all while creating good-paying union jobs and advancing environmental justice.

These investments are part of the administration’s all-of-government approach to spur economic revitalization in hard-hit energy communities. In just the last few months, the Interior Department has invested over $260 million for state and Tribal reclamation efforts through the Abandoned Mine Land and Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization grant programs –including nearly $44 million in West Virginia.

These funds support vital jobs for coal communities by funding projects that close dangerous mine shafts, reclaim unstable slopes, improve water quality by treating acid mine drainage and restore water supplies damaged by mining.

These investments also build the foundation for additional jobs in the future once sites are cleaned up and can support new economic development opportunities.

In West Virginia, Abandoned Mine Land program funding has helped reclaim lands that directly support new community opportunities, including the reintroduction of 97,000 Golden Delicious apple trees to abandoned mine lands in Nicholas County. These federal investments also include the restoration of five miles of Beaver Creek in Tucker County and the expansion of the Ashland Resort in McDowell County, which will improve recreational opportunities and generate economic revenue for local businesses.

This is personal to me, because I know what it’s like to grow up in a community that’s left behind when mines are closed. The Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico was once home to the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine. Decades of neglect left my Tribal community members dealing with the economic, environmental and health impacts of abandoned mine lands.

We are at a critical point in our nation’s history. With historic investments in clean energy technology, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to diversify our national energy portfolio while at the same time combat climate change and invest in our communities.

Deb Haaland is Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior.

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