Coal Communities 80 Ideas đź’ˇthe People

A legislative committee is recommending more than 80 measures to help West Virginia’s depressed coalfield communities, but has so far reduced only one of those to a draft bill.

The report’s recommendations include giving West Virginia communities grants for infrastructure development; providing high-speed internet for all West Virginians; encouraging the redevelopment of former coal mines for uses like affordable housing, agriculture or even renewable energy; helping demolish or redevelop abandoned properties;, offering tax incentives to small tourism businesses; expanding educational opportunities; and increasing support for people in recovery from addiction.

But so far, only one proposal from this report has been drafted into a bill that lawmakers can consider. The draft bill, which would create a statewide commission to help city and county governments access federal grants, has yet to be introduced. 

The report was built largely from the input of more than 200 West Virginians who attended five public hearings throughout the state, hosted by a group of lawmakers elected to represent coal communities. On Monday, those lawmakers formed a select committee on Coalfield Communities, essentially elevating the effort and giving it more teeth. They’re able to favorably recommend the passage of certain bills dealing with coalfield communities, just like any other committee. 

Delegate Ed Evans, the committee’s minority chairman, said there are more bills to come but he’s not sure when. It was unclear Wednesday when the committee plans to meet again.

“These bills will reflect the things that were reported to us by the people during the listening tours,” said Evans, D-McDowell. 

The committee has just three weeks left to produce concrete legislation from this report, if they want to see any bills passed this year. 

Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, chairs the 15-member committee. Dean did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some of the report’s recommendations, like “increase resources provided to coal communities to address dilapidated buildings” and “provide grants … to address infrastructure issues,” are already theoretically addressed by laws on the books. That includes a statewide fund for the demolition of abandoned properties, which was established last year without any funding. West Virginia also already has a “Future Fund” that city and county government officials can apply to, for economic development related projects. The Legislature agreed upon this fund in 2014, but it was organized in a way that makes it difficult to give the fund money.

Recommendations in the report also hearken back to bills that lawmakers have introduced, but never passed.

While in the report, lawmakers recommend creating more modern economic opportunities in the coalfields, a bill to encourage more solar energy jobs at former mining sites died in committee in 2019. Another recommendation, asking electric utilities to use the most energy-efficient options possible, is reminiscent of Senate Bill 600 in 2018. This bill would have given power companies incentives to offer energy-efficient options, and state senators shot it down  that year.

The report’s recommendations aren’t just similar to missed legislative opportunities — it also reincarnates ideas that haven’t come to fruition in the past. Take the redevelopment of old mining sites, and the use of the West Virginia National Guard in former mining areas, both ideas that have come and gone from previous governor’s offices. 

State officials have spent years touting the Hobet surface mining site not only as a successful mine, but as a poster child for reclamation. But today, most initiatives announced for Hobet, including a National Guard training site, are not there. During the committee’s first meeting in Logan County, attendees asked for updates and help with the redevelopment plans around the former Hobet site.

In Monongalia County, where the lawmakers met in the Scotts Run area outside Morgantown, residents had a list of infrastructure-related requests for their delegates.