Coordinator of Community Engagement and Policy
Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center
What services do you offer?
We do a number of things. We are a non-profit legal services entity that provides legal services for a number of constituents throughout the region, low-income constituents typically who can’t find legal representation in other ways. Especially around black lung cases, and mine safety cases, and some environmental work. Especially if you’re a coal miner or the widow of a coal miner who maybe had black lung or if you have black lung, our attorneys will take those cases and work those cases.
Primarily we serve Eastern Kentucky, but we do take cases in some surrounding states. There’s more cases than we can handle right now. Sadly, there is a lot of the disease in the region right now. There’s an uptick of black lung disease in Appalachia, so there’s a lot of work to be done.
Do you deal with environmental cases as well as health?
One of our attorneys works on environmental cases. In the past, she’s worked on cases related to water pollution or property issues as it relates to mining or extractive industry. One thing that she’s working on right now is some work around Martin County, Kentucky, and the crisis around their water infrastructure. Basically, they have a crumbling water infrastructure that loses a lot of water and isn’t providing clean water to the citizens of Martin County. She’s working on how to resolve that situation.
Have small towns in Appalachia been particularly hit by environmental disasters caused by corporations?
I think there’s been a lot of water pollution. There’s a lot of degraded lands that we have throughout the region that have been caused by extractive industry at the hand of large corporations, many of which aren’t based in the region or haven’t been based in the region. That’s still a legacy that we live with now. Whether it’s this water crisis that’s going on in Martin County, whether it’s the hundreds, probably even thousands, of coal mines that haven’t been reclaimed, or lands and waters impacted by coal mining that haven’t been cleaned up. Those are still outstanding issues that are liabilities for our communities –health liabilities, economic liabilities. It’s harder to start a business in your community if you have degraded lands or if you have bad water. That’s just part of the equation, but it’s an important one.
For small towns that don’t have a lot of resources and think it’s too big for any one town – should they just give up?
They shouldn’t give up. There’s a lot of work that we’re doing as a region. One thing that I work on is some collaborative work across state lines to pass legislation and to get federal investment to implore people to clean up these degraded lands, and to think about development on and around those waters or lands that have been negatively impacted by extractive industry in the past. There’s a lot that we can do by way of federal investment if we work together. There is some good work that is happening right now around that, around supporting initiatives like the POWER Initiative, the RECLAIM Act, the AML pilot program. These are all things that inject money or would inject investment in distressed coal communities in Appalachia.
There’s work that we have to do to make sure that that money gets to communities throughout the region, not just the communities that already have resources to take advantage of those grants. If we’re really going to make a just transition in Appalachia, we have to make sure that even the small towns that maybe haven’t had a robust economy, have access to those grants. That’s a gap that we still have in the region that we need to make sure we are filling moving forward.
How can mayors and town managers be more informed about these degraded lands and the money available to them?
There’s a lot of information about those three programs—POWER Initiative, Reclaim Act, AML pilot program—online. If you’re in the Appalachian Region, the Appalachian Regional Commission has quite a bit of information on their website about the POWER Initiative and the funding that comes through that program, and the types of projects that have been funded through that program previously. I would start there. Also, if you dig around on our website, appalachianlawcenter.org, you can find links to other resources where you could learn about those programs.
What do you wish that small town mayors and town managers knew that they don’t know?
One of the things that we’ve been talking about already in this conversation is that there’s actually, just in the past 2-3 years, been a lot of federal investment. Not as much as we need to make the full transition that we need to to have the robust healthy economy in Appalachia that we want and we need. There’s still work to be done for sure, but there’s been a sizeable investment from the federal level to agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, Economic Development Administration, the Abandoned Mine Land agencies in your state. I think it would be good to have a greater public awareness of those funding opportunities so that we really continue to have and push forward a public conversation about how to make those investments in the smartest way we can. Not only as towns, but as a region as well.
So, there may be money out there that town leaders don’t know about?
Yes, the POWER Initiative in particular. You need local governments involved with any of these programs, because if you’re going to do development, you need to have a plan and you need, town managers or your mayor really involved in that strategic planning process locally. It needs to be a participatory process that involves citizens. These programs are definitely programs that local governments can get resources through for projects for their town or their city or locality.
Have you found the local governments easy to work with or hard to work with?
We’ve actually seen a number of local elected officials step up for the programs that we’ve been advocating for in Eastern Kentucky. There was a wave of local governments that passed resolutions in 2015 at their local municipality level saying, “We have a lot of local assets. We believe in a future here, we want to provide for our citizens, and as citizens, we want to build a community that we want to see. We need to make investments, we need investments from the federal level. We also need to clean up the liabilities, the abandoned mines that we have in our communities, that’s important.” There were about a dozen communities that did this in Eastern Kentucky, and there were about a dozen more across surrounding states, in West Virginia and Virginia and Tennessee.
It varies with the locality for sure. Some mayors have more vision than others and some are willing to involve citizens more than others, I think those things are really important that we should always be pushing our local elected officials to do. But I’ve found that politicians at the local level are more willing and interested to have conversations about the future of their locality then politicians at higher levels.