By Kent Jackson
July 8, 2017 - Coal isn’t just for heating any more, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta said.
While the local anthracite companies sell hard coal to China as an alloy for steel, Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, said a new process might draw out rare earth metals from the coal land in his hometown. Now the United States buys those rare metals from China for use in commercial electronics like cellphones, electric cars and the defense industry.
“We have something here that the world needs,” Barletta said Friday while addressing the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce at Capriotti’s Catering.
Speaking at the chamber’s Red Carpet Breakfast for the 18th time since becoming mayor of Hazleton in 1999, Barletta said growing up in Hazleton toughened him for national politics.
When Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon came to Washington, D.C., last week, he and Barletta recalled playing softball at Pagnotti Field where dirt and rocks speckled the basepaths, and the fans were as rough. “The guys on the hill, they would root against both teams,” Barletta said.
In practice for the annual congressional baseball game, which Barletta skipped this year but spoke about after breakfast, his colleague, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, almost died from blood loss when shot by an attacker on June 14. Scalise returned to intensive care on Thursday due to infection.
Barletta also told the chamber crowd about his efforts to improve vocational education and infrastructure, economize on federal buildings and rewrite rules for giving federal aid following disasters like last winter’s blizzard. Afterward, he also gave his views on pending healthcare bills.
Barletta said Hazleton “lost a greater person in L.A. Tarone,” the radio host and journalist who died June 25 and whom Barletta eulogized in the Congressional Record two days later. During breakfast, he compared the rebound of coal to Tarone’s retro wardrobe.
“L.A. kept his clothes long enough that they went in style. They went out of style,” Barletta joked. “Low and behold, like L.A.’s clothes, coal is back.”
To start extracting rare earth metals from Jeddo Coal in Hazle Twp., Barletta helped arrange for a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy last month. Researchers joined the program from Texas Mineral Resources Corp., Inventure Renewables, K Technologies and Penn State University, where scientists already have published about the process. They found rare earth elements such as scandium and yttrium in coal seams, but said concentrations lie within the shale above the coal. The scientists liquefy the rock and draw out rare earth metals with a solution of ammonium sulfate, a process that they say is better for the environment and uses less energy than a roasting process used earlier.
Texas Mineral Chairman Anthony Marchese, telephoned after the breakfast, said Barletta and other members of the Pennsylvania delegation were “incredibly supportive” of the pilot project. The Pennsylvania team will compete against pilot projects in West Virginia and Kentucky for a $20 million grant that the Energy Department will award in 18 months to the group that shows the most potential for extracting the rare metals economically, Marchese said.
Barletta said his district can develop manufacturing jobs from assets like rare earth metals and natural gas. Pennsylvania has great reserves of natural gas, but Barletta advocated building pipelines to deliver the gas to a world market.
He also wants to rebuild other infrastructure.
“Roads aren’t going to get better; bridges aren’t going to be better by themselves,” Barletta said.
Barletta is working with a White House team that is developing a transportation plan, which he said President Donald Trump supports.
In Barletta’s view, building transportation facilities isn’t government spending, but government investment. Workers on the projects spend their paychecks at local businesses, pay taxes and support their families.
To ensure that students develop skills for the manufacturing and construction jobs, he supported a House bill that promotes vocational education, draws input from companies on the skills that they expect workers to have, much like Hazleton’s Partners in Education program, and allows students to earn certificates attesting to their training.
Barletta said he has been trying to save tax dollars by moving federal agencies into smaller rental buildings during the past three years and, more recently, liquidating unused federal buildings.
When Barletta asked to see an inventory of empty buildings, he learned that there wasn’t one.
Now he started a program dubbed Get off Your Assets to expedite the sale of buildings like the Veterans’ Hospital campus in Pittsburgh, which the federal government spent $270,000 to maintain so far this year and which the city of Pittsburgh wants to buy.
To help cities like Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre that spent much of their snow removal budget on one blizzard this winter, Barletta wants to rewrite rules for awarding federal disaster relief. Current rules disqualified Northeast Pennsylvania from disaster aid because the blizzard hit regionally rather than statewide.
He also supported Kate’s law, which increases penalties for deportees who illegally return to the United States and commit crimes. The bill is named for Kate Steinle, a woman murdered by a deportee in San Francisco in a case with parallels to the 2006 murder of Derek Kichline in Hazleton.
Also, Barletta backs a bill that requires the federal government to join as a defendant any local government sued for enforcing immigration laws, as Hazleton was in 2007. The city lost a challenge to its immigration act and paid the plaintiffs $1.45 million in legal fees.
While Barletta didn’t mention health care during his talk, and no one for the audience asked him about it during a question-and-answer session, he commented about the House and Senate bills after breakfast.
While the Congressional Budget Office said the House bill will result in 23 million fewer people having health insurance in 10 years, Barletta said the federal government couldn’t afford the cost of expanding Medicaid under the terms set during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Obamacare paid for 95 percent of the expansion, whereas the House and Senate bills reduce that share closer to the 50 percent that the federal government traditionally paid Pennsylvania for Medicaid.
While states can ask the federal government to waive requirements that health insurance policies cover 10 areas such as childbirth, Barletta said the bills require states to prove that they have plans for caring for people with pre-existing conditions.
He also remains interested in measures, not part of the bills, that have the potential to reduce costs, by letting insurance companies sell polices across state lines, allowing small businesses to buy insurance in pools and giving consumers prices to compare for tests such as CAT scans.
“We want you to know what those fees are,” Barletta said. “… The insurance company knows, the hospital knows what they’re going to charge … so why shouldn’t you have the opportunity to shop?”
Seated from left: Jerry Ibanez of State Farm, new member; Nevin Balliet of Northeast Hearing, new member; Patricia Rodriguez-Hudson of Country Heart, new member; Charlie Altmiller of Abbey Road Control, new member. Standing: Donna Barna, GHCC board chairman; attorney Conrad A. Falvello, district director for U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta; U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, guest speaker; Ron Beer, chief administrative officer at Geisinger Northeast, sponsor and Tom Gibbon, director of corporate communication at Geisinger, sponsor.