A Call for Massive Reinvestment Aims to Reverse Coal Country’s Rapid Decline

The plan targets devastated communities from Virginia to Arizona. “There is a debt to be paid,” said one proponent.

Solar panels at the Lynch, Kentucky, water plant, on an old massive coal mine site in Harlan County. This is one example of the kind of economic transition identified in a new roadmap for economic transition in coal communities across the United States. Credit: James Bruggers

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The global coronavirus that’s put tens of millions of Americans out of work and plunged the nation into a recession is speeding an ongoing transition away from coal.

With devastation in communities left behind, 80 local, regional and national organizations on Monday rolled out a National Economic Transition Platform to support struggling coal mining cities and towns, some facing severe poverty, in Appalachia, the Illinois Basin, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and elsewhere.

Although it comes just four months before the presidential election in November, the platform doesn’t mention the Green New Deal, the proposed massive shift in federal spending to create jobs and hasten a transition to clean energy that’s divided Republicans and Democrats. 


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But Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, which drafted by the plan with a wide range of partners, including labor unions, community organizations, business groups and environmental and tribal nonprofits, said it could be used as a template for part of the Green New Deal or any other legislative initiatives aimed at helping coal communities.

While some of the sponsors haven’t endorsed the Democrats’ manifesto for a new economy based on clean energy, all of them are united in the principles of community-based economic development for coal country, Binko said. 

The Green New Deal, introduced in Congress last year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 “through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” It does not include specific provisions for retraining out-of-work coal miners or reinvesting in struggling coal communities. 

Last year, the Appalachian Regional Commission identified 80 counties across its area as economically distressed—meaning they rank among the most impoverished 10 percent of counties in the nation.

During a telephone news conference Monday introducing the sweeping program for economic revitalization of the nation’s coal regions, speakers from Appalachia to the Navajo Nation described the need for bottom-up economic development that builds on community members’ strengths and resources. 

The main point in putting forth the platform is that communities that have relied on coal need far more help than they’ve been getting, said Just Transition’s Binko. The fund was created in 2015 by several philanthropic foundations and the Appalachian Funders Network to help communities redefine their local economies.

Binko said the platform is based on what has already been shown to work and lacks only the funding needed to scale up efforts well beyond President Obama’s proposed Power Plus plan, a $1 billion economic development fund tied to cleaning up abandoned mines. Congress funded a more limited program.

“The coal economy didn’t create lasting economic opportunity,” said Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED), a nonprofit that serves counties in the eastern Kentucky coalfield, who helped draft the new plan. Workers and communities that produced coal for generations “sacrificed their lives, water, health and ecosystems,” he said. “There is a debt to be paid.”

Hille said MACED in Kentucky, for example, has had success helping to finance solar power installations that save residents and businesses money, while creating new jobs.

Brandon Dennison, the CEO of West Virginia’s Coalfield Development Corporation, said his organization has helped launch sustainable agriculture businesses.

The new coal transition platform also highlighted how Navajo communities and local entrepreneurs near the recently closed Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona are creating clean-energy and sustainable tourism enterprises.

It calls for investing in local leadership to lead the transition—especially Black, brown, women and indigenous-led organizations. The plan stresses support for small businesses and payments for workers while transitioning to family-sustaining jobs. 

And it calls for reclamation and reuse of coal sites and new community infrastructure, including public health facilities and schools. Coal companies, under the plan, would be held accountable during bankruptcies.

“Coal plant closures are changing regions and ways of life too rapidly for small communities to adapt on their own,” said James Slevin, president of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, during the press conference. The AFL-CIO has endorsed Joe Biden for president.

When coal-fired power plants shut down, local governments can find themselves losing millions of dollars in annual tax revenues, he said.

“This (plan) offers lawmakers and leaders a community-driven guide,” he said.

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