Sen. Leland Christensen, right, appeared in Casper at a rally supporting coal mining as he stumped the state as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year. The White House has announced grants to offset impacts in coal country, including $450,000 for Western communities. (Tim Kupsick/WyoFile)

The White House handed out more than $27 million in grants Oct. 26 to help places in America struggling to cope with the economic devastation wrought by the coal industry’s collapse.

Funding disbursed to 42 projects throughout 13 states, mostly in Appalachia, marks what was left of $65.8 million made available in March as part of President Obama’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization.

[The grants include $450,000 to Western states, including money to aid Powder River Basin miners affected by layoffs. See a White House summary below]

The initiative, which is part of the president’s broader POWER+ Plan to help beleaguered coal country, awarded $38.8 million to 29 other projects that also focus on expanding local economies and training the workforce. The Appalachian Regional Commission and the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration oversee the grant program.

Among the latest round of grants was $2.22 million to build facilities that can turn Wise, Va., into a national hub for training drone operators. An additional $1.56 million will go to the city of Belpre, Ohio, to build infrastructure and sewer lines to accommodate new, large employers.

Obama administration regulations are frequently blasted in coal communities for undercutting the mining industry, but the White House and other Democrats, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, are touting plans to help diversify economically ravaged areas.

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In August, White House aide Jason Walsh said while a silver bullet industry to replace coal doesn’t exist, the grants are an example of “silver buckshot that we think is going to have a big, long-term impact.”

The grants also gave the White House an opportunity to renew its push for Congress to pass bills consistent with the POWER+ Plan, including one rescuing union miners’ pension and health care plans. Another would free up $1 billion for reclamation projects with economic revitalization in mind.

[U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi has criticized the pension aid plan, which he says would set a precedent for the Federal government to begin bailing out underfunded pension plans, while doing nothing to help non-unionized miners who have lost their jobs. Most miners in the Powder River Basin are not unionized.]

White House description of Western grants

  • $400,000 Economic Development Administration grant to the National Association of Counties and the National Association of Development Organizations in Washington, DC in support of the Technical Assistance for Coal Communities project targeting Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. The project will provide technical assistance to communities whose economies have been severely impacted by the declining use of coal, and will build on the success of the Innovation Challenge for Coal-Reliant Communities, a program that the co-awardees jointly implemented from 2014 to 2016 with the support of the EDA. Community leaders will participate in intensive training workshops, and receive peer networking opportunities and mentoring resources related to economic diversification, job creation and long-term, place-based economic development strategies.
  • $50,000 EDA grant to the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation in Colstrip, MT. Colstrip Power Plant Units 1 and 2 will be retired by 2022. Between this anticipated closure and the resulting layoffs at the nearby Rosebud Mine, the total cumulative job losses are projected to have a significant impact on the regional workforce. This EDA investment will support the development of an economic development strategy that the City of Colstrip will use as its guide to diversifying and stabilizing the economy of Colstrip and the surrounding area that has historically depended on both coal mining and coal-fired power generation.

Related  stories by WyoFile’s Gillette reporter Andrew Graham

Six months after black Thursday, Gillette bent but not broken

Cuts fray Wyoming’s social safety network

Oilfield dad

James Whitten got laid off from the oil patch and is having a rough time making ends meet for his family, including sons Adam and Adrian. “I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I saw gas at $1.60 a gallon,” he said. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)
James Whitten got laid off from the oil patch and is having a rough time making ends meet for his family, including sons Adam and Adrian. “I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I saw gas at $1.60 a gallon,” he said. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

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