Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is the governor of Virginia and states’ co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

For more than a century, the people and communities of Virginia’s historic coal fields have helped power our nation’s economy. The coal dug from the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia helped forge steel and electrify the nation.

The coal industry provided thousands of jobs, supporting towns, schools, even baseball teams. Today, the coalfield region faces economic hardships as the nation increasingly transitions away from fossil fuels. That’s good for the environment, but it comes with a cost to the communities built around coal. Jobs are hard to find. Tax revenue, which supports schools and public services, is down. Too many children of our coalfields leave home for work and don’t come back.

As we move to clean, renewable sources of energy, we must give communities and people in Appalachia the resources to help transition away from an economy based heavily on extractive industries.

Those communities are already doing the work to rebuild their economies. Coal-impacted communities across Appalachia — and elsewhere, such as Wyoming and the Navajo Nation — have worked diligently and creatively for years to boost new economic development.

For our coalfield communities in Appalachia to keep up their innovative economic development, we need Congress to pass two important, bipartisan bills that are key to addressing environmental and economic hardships. I am states’ co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and this legislation is a high priority for me.

The Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program (AML) is the only dedicated funding source to help pay for environmental damage caused before federal regulations took effect in 1981. AML funds come from fees collected on mined coal. For the past 40 years, those dollars have been used to clean up dangerous, polluting and abandoned coal sites throughout the country.

Virginia spends roughly $4 million a year to deal with safety and environmental issues caused by old mine sites. For example, in February 2020, heavy rains caused a landslide in an area of Virginia’s Russell County that had historically been mined, threatening houses below. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) used AML funds to stabilize the hillside and save people’s homes.

Only $2.2 billion remains in the federal AML fund, but tens of billions of dollars’ worth of hazardous sites remains to be cleaned up, including more than $100 million in Virginia.

Congress must act to make sure this fee does not expire in September. Our communities need that fee extended so they don’t bear the burden of environmental cleanup for years to come.

The AML funding goes hand in hand with another crucial piece of legislation before Congress: the Reclaim Act.

The Reclaim Act is essential to helping coal communities rebuild their economies. It would dedicate $1 billion from the AML fund to 20 states over five years, providing grants for economic development projects that are paired with mine land reclamation.

Virginia has already been doing this through a pilot program — with impressive results.

For example, in Wise County in Southwest Virginia, the DMME is using AML pilot funds to put a solar farm on former mine land, to support the Mineral Gap Data Center. The data center industry has enormous long-term potential in Virginia and Appalachia.

In the town of Pocahontas, which sits on one of southern Appalachia’s most productive coalfields, DMME has used AML funds for improvements to Virginia’s only exhibition coal mine, a national Historic Landmark. Visitors walk through an early mine to see firsthand how coal was produced. Safety improvements and a new restaurant will attract more visitors to the area.

And across Southwest Virginia, Project Thoroughbred has farmers growing grains for Virginia industries, such as barley for breweries and distilleries that currently import their grain from out of the state and out of the country.

In Virginia, we’ve learned that the most successful economic development is grass-roots, growing out of the communities themselves. Rather than hoping another single industry will come in and provide jobs, we’re diversifying the economy from the ground up. We’re using old mine land — once it’s cleaned up and made safe — for innovative new uses, such as tourism or manufacturing sites, reintroduced native species such as elk and farming new crops. These are new industries, built by Appalachian people for Appalachian communities.

They’re doing that with support from AML funds. With scaled-up investment, they could do even more.

AML reauthorization and the Reclaim Act provide a critical foundation for Appalachian communities to continue growing new, diverse industries on their own terms.

But the clock is ticking. This is the time to invest in coal communities, and the proud people who live there, who have done so much for our country. Appalachian coal communities, and all coal-producing areas of the country, can’t afford to wait.

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