By John Raby
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Appalachian coal communities hit hard by layoffs will get $45 million in federal funding to help them diversify their economies, create new jobs and retrain workers.
The Appalachian Regional Commission, the White House and the U.S. Department of Commerce announced Thursday that it’s part of a $65.8 million grant package through the Obama administration’s Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, or POWER.
While grants will support economic development efforts among regional partnerships in coal communities nationwide, the Appalachian Regional Commission will receive $45 million to distribute for such projects.
“This program is really an investment in the leadership of the next generation of Appalachians,” said ARC federal co-chair Earl Gohl.
The partnerships must develop projects to diversify economies, create jobs in new or existing industries, attract new job-creating investment and provide workforce services and skills training.
The announcement comes amid the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce the nation’s carbon-dioxide emissions 32 percent by 2030, viewed as a possible knockout blow to a staggering coal industry that has seen thousands of layoffs in recent years.
Those regulations, a key component of President Barack Obama’s plan to fight climate change, focus on cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court voted to freeze the plan while legal challenges against the regulations are pending.
Within the last year, coal companies Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal have all filed for bankruptcy protection. Peabody Energy announced this week that it may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
“The fact is that the decline in coal jobs began well before President Obama took office,” White House senior policy adviser Jason Walsh said on a conference call. “The people and the communities most affected by these changes in the industry are less interested in the data and less interested in the debate and more interested in solutions and how they can better build a life for themselves, their communities and their kids.”
One such community effort is Reconnecting McDowell, a large public-private partnership to revitalize West Virginia’s McDowell County, where U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations in 2003.
In the 1960s, McDowell County ranked first in U.S. coal production. After U.S. Steel left, 23 percent of McDowell County’s population did, too, because there was no other industry to rely on for jobs in the mountainous area.
McDowell County has the state’s second-highest highest unemployment rate, at 14.2 percent. More than a third of its 20,000 residents live in poverty.
“McDowell has had challenges over many generations,” Gohl said. “It’s critical that we include McDowell as a very serious partner moving forward.”
Reconnecting McDowell chair Gayle Manchin said her group will look to tap into the federal funding not just for itself but how it can benefit other coal communities with similar challenges in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
“We always are diligent in looking for partners that can be part of the grant with us,” said Manchin, a former West Virginia Board of Education president and the wife of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. “The more minds that we have working together, the better the success we will have on the projects.”