West Virginia dominates list of 25 coal communities that are focus of federal economic effort

West Virginia communities are at the top of the list for a federal interagency organization aiming to support struggling coalfields residents.

The task force that reports to President Joe Biden has started identifying federal funding to try to help, named a West Virginian as its executive director and has promised to embark on a series of town halls to hear from residents.

The White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization also named 25 areas that need help.

No. 1 was southern West Virginia.

No. 3 was the area surrounding Wheeling, which means West Virginia has two of the highest priority areas.

No. 11 included 23 counties in the northern part of West Virginia.

No. 23 was the area around Beckley.

No. 24 was the area around Charleston, particularly Kanawha, Clay and Boone counties.

So West Virginia represents five of the top 25 coalfield communities in the country in need of economic revitalization.

Those listings were the starting point of a report to President Biden to begin economic revitalization, create jobs that would help workers to thrive, and support hard-hit coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities across the country.

Coal power generation provided about half the nation’s electricity from 1950 to 2008, according to the report, but coal’s share has steadily declined since. Coal produced about 23 percent of U.S. electricity in 2019.

Since 2009, 142 plants have retired generators or closed entirely.

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson of Morgantown was named executive director of the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization.

A longtime resident of West Virginia and a descendant of coal miners, Anderson already serves as director of Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, which has facilities in Morgantown.

“What we’re really trying to do is identify all of the opportunities that we can direct into coal, fossil fuel and power plant communities that have historically been affected by mine closures over the last few decades,” Anderson said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

The federal task force is made up of agencies including the U.S. Treasury Department, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, Appalachian Regional Commission and more.

The interagency working group identified nearly $38 billion in existing federal funding that could be accessed by energy communities for infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, community revitalization, and jobs well-suited to support hard-hit energy communities.

The initial report also identified a variety of other ways that existing programs within the federal agencies can begin to focus on the recovery of the 25 identified coal communities. Those range from support for broadband to the reclamation of abandoned mine lands.

“We’re going to start immediately,” Anderson said. “We’re going to start with some town halls in the communities and assure the solutions are not a one-size-fits-all sort of blanket solution, but they’re tailored to the existing expertise, infrastructure training and workforce that are in individual communities across the country.

“What we’re going to do is make sure the communities are engaged in identifying the solution.”

The initial report from the interagency working group says it will work to promote job-creating investments in communities
already affected by coal mine and power plant closures with aggressive investments in communities likely be affected by additional, near-term declines in coal production and generation from coal-fired power plants.

In addition to the 25 communities identified as already affected by coal’s downturn, focus is on workers directly employed in coal mining and power generation, workers in related industries and residents who depend on coal-related tax revenue to fund schools, fire houses, police stations and infrastructure.

Within three months, the task force expects to launch a series of town hall meetings with senior Biden Administration officials to listen to concerns and identify federal resources for immediate help in energy communities.

Economic improvements may come with investments in public infrastructure like broadband, water systems, roads and the electric grid as well as civic infrastructure like hospitals, schools, small businesses, financial institutions that serve rural areas and community -based

“Energy Communities that often suffered from years of disinvestment, even during the boom times of the traditional energy economy, require foundational infrastructure investments to access the benefits of the innovation economy,” according to the task force’s initial report.

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