Ohio’s Appalachian communities deserve investment. Start with the RECLAIM Act.

CHESHIRE, OH - SEPTEMBER 11 : A field of coal is seen near the Gavin Power Plant on September 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio In 2002, the company that owns the Gavin Power Plant, American Electric Power, reached a settlement with the town's residents for $20 million so they would move and not hold the power plant liable for any health issues. A few of the residents stayed in the town while most moved away. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

From Ashtabula to Athens, Boardman to Batavia, Ohio’s Appalachian communities can be places where working people and their families and neighbors, can live safe and healthy lives, while making family-supporting wages. But only if we stop letting Big Energy rig the political system against us.

For too long, Appalachia has provided the raw materials for the prosperity of absentee corporations who have exploited working people, left the land scarred, and workers and residents sick. Despite being rich in natural resources, Appalachian communities rank largely in the bottom 10% of the nation for high poverty rates, unemployment and low wages.

We can and should do better. By driving much-needed and much-deserved federal resources into the Ohio Valley of Appalachia, for infrastructure projects, we can put Appalachians to work in largely outdoor jobs that are relatively safe during this COVID crisis — building a 21st century sustainable Appalachia.

The work of rebuilding and reviving Appalachia starts with repairing the damage from the last century — reclaiming mines abandoned by coal companies, remediating coal ash pond brownfields left behind at shuttered coal power plants, and capping orphaned oil and gas wells. Passing the federal RECLAIM Act and reauthorizing the Abandoned Mines Act would be a good first start in the right direction. Ohio would directly benefit.

The RECLAIM Act would direct $1 billion over five years to projects that put people to work cleaning up dangerous and toxic abandoned coal mines. Reauthorizing the Abandoned Mines Act would ensure a continued funding source for this ongoing work.

Ohio has $439 million in outstanding liabilities related to abandoned mines. If the RECLAIM Act passes, the state could receive $61 million over five years towards cleaning up these dangerous legacies. These bills together could create thousands of jobs across Appalachia, including in Ohio.

Our political leaders and their appointed judges have already let too many bad acting, big energy companies off the hook for the damage they caused. We should not let our political leaders off the hook, too. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has long been a champion of doing the right thing and investing to repair these damaged lands.  We must demand the same of Sen. Rob Portman.

Nearly 1 million Ohioans live within a mile of an abandoned mine site. Hazards from these sites include dangerous open mine portals; high walls and unstable lands that are tempting but dangerous for adventuresome young people; acid mine drainage that wreaks havoc on our water systems and harms wildlife; and comes with increased risks from landslides and flooding.

We have a chance to rectify prior wrongs in a way that puts people to work in good outdoor jobs repairing past damage done by coal mining corporations, but we need our federal leaders pass the RECLAIM Act and reauthorize the Abandoned Land Mines Act — both of which have been languishing in Congress.

These initiatives are part of an ambitious set of policies recommended as part of the Reimagine Appalachia platform. The platform also includes expanding broadband throughout the region, modernizing the electric grid, turning former coal plants into eco-industrial parks and promoting regenerative agriculture, among other things. So far, more than 80 organizations have endorsed the policy blueprint we released last month. The problems Appalachia faces are many — but so are its strengths.

Investments in the region create immediate jobs while putting in place the building blocks for real prosperity over the long term. The choices our political leaders make to support our communities during the outbreak of this virus can also set a better course for Appalachia. We must demand they do the right thing.

Amanda Woodrum
Amanda Woodrum is a Senior Researcher focusing on issues found at the intersection of health, equity and the economy. After living in New York City and experiencing 9/11, she returned to Ohio determined to make the state the kind of place she wanted to live. She joined Policy Matters Ohio in 2007 after receiving a master’s degree in economics and a law degree from the University of Akron. She conducts research on the role transportation, energy, health and anti-poverty policy can play to promote a more sustainable and equitable economy in Ohio.