“Over the past year I have been working closely with the Just Transition Fund and many other organizations from throughout not only Appalachia, but coal regions across the country, to advocate for major investments in coal communities. We envision a just transition to a more diversified, safe, and clean economy. That means workers and communities shouldn’t be left behind as the world transitions away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources. Our group is working and collaborating to lay out a plan for the federal government to create the kinds of bold, fair, and sustainable policies that can help our community not just survive these difficult times, but actually thrive in the near future. Importantly, and unlike many other policy proposals, this effort has been from the ground up and completely community-based. Obviously, the COVID-19 situation has been a shock to our entire country, our entire world even. In light of this crisis, and as we try to follow major decisions getting made in Washington D.C., we felt it was important to speak up on behalf of our communities and make sure Congress considers the unique needs of coal communities as it crafts an economic stimulus package.” – Brandon Dennison
Here is what we came up with…
Content of the Coalition Letter to Congress:
At this time of unprecedented uncertainty, we want to express our appreciation for your work addressing the public health, economic, and social crises spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. We urge you to quickly advance equitable and comprehensive relief packages that support the people and the communities hit hardest by this emergency. As non-partisan organizations focused on spurring economic development in places affected by the changing coal economy, we know these communities already struggle with deep job losses, declining government revenues and services, and ineffective health infrastructures. The pain felt in coal communities during this unprecedented crisis will be exacted on those who are already in turmoil and threatens to make their situation worse. Furthermore, the lives of millions more people in coal communities could be upended as more coal facilities close.
New reporting indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to expedite the decline of the coal sector and the closure of coal plants and mines across the country, leaving communities little time to prepare for transition and destabilizing numerous local economies and governments when services and support are needed most. Coal closures often quickly eliminate an area’s largest employer, eroding the primary tax base that supports government services and local education, infrastructure, and health care investments—especially in tribal communities affected by coal, already dealing with disproportionately more severe impacts. These services will be desperately needed during and after this economic and public health crisis.
Congress should advance policies that benefit every working person in this country—such as immediate and direct cash relief, paid sick leave, extended unemployment compensation, and a halt to evictions and utility shutoffs.Furthermore, on behalf of our organizations, we urge you to include both an immediate and a long-term focus on needs specific to coal communities in any relief legislation advanced in Congress.
Rural Health Care: Significant investments in rural health care are urgently needed and must be included in any relief package. Coal communities are overwhelmingly rural communities that have struggled to access affordable, adequate health care for years. Across the country, rural health care infrastructure is underresourced and understaffed. Few doctors, nurses, and facilities are available for the millions of people they are expected to serve. With the tax base crumbling, dwindling government resources are available to support the few facilities that serve these areas. Meanwhile, health insurance coverage in rural areas is disproportionately more expensive than in urban areas, shutting people out of essential services and affordable care. The COVID-19 public health crisis will continue to expose these dangerous shortcomings when health services and resources are needed most. Investments should include funding for the facilities, equipment, and staff needed to meet the short-term demand that COVID-19 is already creating. Investments should also support local workforce development programs to train new healthcare professionals and improvements in health infrastructure to provide long-term preventive care.
Black Lung Benefits: Investing in health care, black lung benefits, and black lung clinics can help keep this extremely vulnerable population healthy and protected during this pandemic, while also supporting the families of black lung patients who may be struggling to make ends meet. One in ten coal miners who spent their careers underground suffers from Black Lung disease, a deadly condition that makes it harder – and eventually impossible – to breathe. The prevalence and severity of black lung disease is on the rise. With respiratory health already a major concern in coal communities, COVID-19 threatens to make a dangerous situation much more dire, since we know that pre-existing respiratory diseases make it far more likely that COVID-19 infection will be severe or deadly. While miners with black lung disease may be entitled to benefits from their employers, they face a long and burdensome bureaucratic process to do so that could be derailed by companies who declare bankruptcy or cannot be identified amid the decline of the coal sector. Investments should also include shoring up multi-employer pension and annuity plans that many rely on for their retirement benefits and well-being.
Rural Small Businesses: Congress’ relief legislation should prioritize supporting small businesses in rural areas by increasing support for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including training, mentorship, and technical assistance for startups and business expansions, as well as physical infrastructure. Small businesses serve as the backbone of the American economy, and are a key job creator in coal communities in transition. The economic downturn spurred by the COVID-19 crisis threatens to undermine the amount of stability they can provide at a time when the economic growth and employment they provide is needed most. This relief extended to employers and employees should also be extended to those who are self-employed. Relief legislation should also focus on debt forgiveness and increasing access to capital, including flexible financing, loan guarantees, and rate buydowns.
Economic Development Agencies: With more coal communities expected to be thrown into turmoil, investments in the ARC and the EDA will support planning and development initiatives that these communities may not otherwise have the opportunity to engage in. Communities in transition often rely on federal agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) for planning, workforce development, and economic development support as local government resources disappear along with the local tax base. Workforce development programs—particularly for those who have historically been left out of the economy—can train those to do the jobs created by this pandemic and beyond, including healthcare, transportation, childcare and other critical services. Existing programs that support job-creating coal site remediation and redevelopment, such as the EPA Brownfields program and the Abandoned Mine Lands program, should also receive additional investment. These initiatives can offer a critical safety net as millions of Americans in coal communities could be faced with a new reality in which their major economic driver vanishes.
Broadband: Expanding access to broadband infrastructure will not only create jobs by installing new capacity, but also will strengthen rural-to-urban partnerships and help rural communities in transition create flexible remote career opportunities with nationally competitive salaries and benefits. The transition of large parts of the economy, millions of jobs, and school programs online during this health crisis dramatically highlights the broadband gap that has hurt rural areas and coal communities for years. These communities often lack reliable broadband access and are increasingly shut out of remote work opportunities and the online economy as a result. Broadband is equally critical to education and, increasingly, access to tele-medicine, a resource now needed more than ever to serve rural residents in this health crisis. Relief legislation that prioritizes connectivity t o the last mile c an ensure coal communities have broadband access that enables remote work and job training opportunities across sectors. This increase in connectivity will help disconnect coal communities from boom and bust economic cycles by developing a more resilient economy and a healthy, well-educated workforce accessing the jobs of the future.
We urge Congress to focus on the areas outlined above to prevent worsening the crisis. If you do, you can also help seize the opportunity to build a better, healthier and more resilient future for the American coal communities who helped power our countries for decades. They supported our country when we needed it most, and now they deserve our support when they need it most.