The ‘Coal Communities Comeback’ is making a comeback.
The proposal to examine how to help faltering West Virginia communities thrive was amended into a coal-focused bill this past legislative session — and then amended back out.
Its legislative failure upset delegates who viewed the idea as a past-due effort to focus on what options are possible for restoring economic strength to communities that used to be hubs of coal activity.
Now the comeback plan is back. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw has announced the creation of an informal workgroup tasked with developing proposals to revitalize communities.
Hanshaw said the need is obvious, and the taskforce could be established without having to pass a bill.
“These members will now have the authority and the flexibility to go into communities, communicate with officials at all levels, and really determine what our coal communities need to succeed so they can come back to us with solid recommendations and then drive those solutions home to the full Legislature when we come back next session,” Hanshaw said.
The workgroup is being led by Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo. Members already gathered to get organized during this week’s legislative interim meetings at the state Capitol.
The group made plans to visit several communities starting in September. Those include Logan, Beckley, Welch, Montgomery, Morgantown and Moundsville.
“The coalfield community comeback is not about mining more coal. That’s not coming back. We know that. It’s about revitalizing communities that were left in a bad way when the companies left,” said Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell.
One focus will be on what opportunities may be available through millions of dollars in federal funding. The American Rescue Plan already has showered West Virginia’s state and local government with hundreds of millions, portions of which are to be invested in water, wastewater and broadband improvements.
Another proposal, the American Jobs Plan addresses roads, bridges, airports, broadband, housing and utilities, and invest in job training along with care for elderly and disabled Americans. The administration’s plan also includes funding for clean energy research and development. Projects would include funding for carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects.
The full scope of the plan — and how to pay for it — has been the subject of prolonged debate in Washington.
And the Biden administration has established a White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization that started by identifying $109.5 million in new funds to support job creation in places affected by the disruption of traditional energy markets.
Furthermore, 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.
Evans, who lives in Welch, said lawmakers need to be involved with connecting communities to all that federal money in a strategic, coherent and practical way.
“It’s going to come in here, and we really didn’t have a plan for it. I don’t know that we still have a plan for it,” he said.
“The goal is to visit these communities and help coordinate. I guess we’re spending money we don’t have yet, but to help coordinate with local people.”
The annual West Virginia Economic Outlook by the West Virginia University Bureau for Economic Research outlined a modest resurgence for coal, based on demand for metallurgical coal, which is a precursor to steel, and exports to India and Ukraine. A handful of new mining operations opened, the report noted.
But the report shows that in terms of broader economic indicators, some West Virginia counties have been going in the wrong direction. Southern West Virginia counties, once hotbeds of coal activity, continue to experience population loss, employment loss and personal income loss.
Evans is well aware of that. He sees it every day.
“We need to look at our cities, our communities that really need some remediation. Every community in the coalfield,” Evans said.
“We have the old Magic Mart building right beside the railroad track. You could have a plant come in and maybe manufacture ATVs and ship them to the world.”
Evans realizes Gov. Jim Justice will be at the center of determining priorities for investing federal money. He would like to see the governor look around communities that need help.
“I’d like him to come down here and take a stroll up Elkhorn Creek and take a look at the white pipes that run from the communities that run right into the creek,” Evans said.
When the lawmakers first adopted and then rescinded the comeback plan from a bill late in the session, he made a speech while in near tears.
“This week, Thursday, we closed Walgreens. Who closes a Walgreens? We closed Walmart. We closed Magic Mart. We’ve closed everything,” Evans said. “You all have no idea what my people go through.”
Evans, who was the lead sponsor of the amendment, described the “Comeback Plan” as a cry for help.
“Imagine if we had a comeback,” Evans said. “I’m trying. I’m trying. Help me.”
The original incarnation would have directed the Public Service Commission to study the water and wastewater, broadband and other infrastructure needs necessary to revitalize communities. The study would also have searched for opportunities to maintain and increase jobs in coal mines, coal-fired power plants and other economic drivers in these communities.
The comeback plan also would have established an advisory committee and called for three public hearings.
The new version of the plan isn’t quite as elaborate, but it also didn’t need a law to establish it.
As the 60-day regular session drew to a close, Speaker Hanshaw told Evans he would create a focused group of lawmakers to help find solutions to the problems facing coal communities.
“I know firsthand just how hard our communities can be hit when the economic activities related to coal dry up,” Hanshaw said. “I know Delegate Evans wanted to see this workgroup created as part of a bill we passed relating to coal-fired power plants, and I knew we could break this apart from the bill and do it without creating a new law.”
Members include Evans, chairman Mark Dean of Mingo County, Jordan Bridges, R-Logan; Nathan Brown, D-Mingo; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia; Austin Haynes, R-Fayette; Josh Holstein, R-Boone; Margitta Mazzocchi, R-Logan; Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming; Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall; Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha; Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha; Christopher Toney, R-Raleigh; and Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall.
“We will have some legislation, proposed legislation for the upcoming session. Hopefully that will do exactly that – match what’s required from the federal government,” Evans said.
There’s money and attention ahead.
U.S. Energy Secretary Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited West Virginia last week with Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
While on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” Granholm spoke of the effort to help coal communities come back.
“The Biden Administration has put together a whole-of-government effort to help coal and power plant communities,” she said.
“We are determined to leave no one behind. But I hear what you’re saying. People who have felt like they have been left behind or made promises to or haven’t been fulfilled, I get it.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) June 4, 2021