By Angie Rosser
On Nov. 28, I, like many West Virginians, traveled to Charleston for a hearing on the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan. The CPP was developed by scientists, economists and policy experts as a response to a Supreme Court ruling that carbon pollution be regulated.
As a resident of Clay County, I went to speak in opposition to this repeal. But there was much more on my mind than the plan itself. I wanted to share the picture of what I see happening in our state and country, and my hope of what we can change.
The repeal hearing was announced by the Environmental Protection Agency as the only one in the nation (the EPA has since said it will add more hearings). On the days of the hearing, America’s eyes were on West Virginia. Usually, I think of our state as rather invisible, forgotten, dismissed as backward or hopeless. We seem to only get national attention when something terrible happens here — a water crisis, a flood, tragic mining deaths.
I wasn’t surprised to see people with mainly two vastly opposing views flock to our state. Trump’s EPA probably chose our state as the location because they believe West Virginians overwhelmingly stand with coal companies. They might also think the majority here support rolling back protections to the environment and public health. But here in the heart of “coal country,” we know neither is true.
We all just want a better way forward for our state and our country. Still, miners are like everyone else when it comes to putting food on the table. They are hard workers and they deserve safe, good-paying jobs. Miners I talk to know that coal jobs will continue to dry up — with or without a Clean Power Plan.
But we’ve been pitted against each other by propaganda that tell us we will either have coal or we will have nothing. This is the lie that keeps our state poor. Not regulation.
The cause of poverty in West Virginia is the failure of those in power to tell the truth and do something about it. They provoke an artificial divide among people who share a heartfelt desire for a better future. They do this to spark deeper division, not to bring the country together on something that affects everyone.
It makes for good reality TV, but it doesn’t help us deal with the reality of life in America. That reality includes the heartache of economic transformation that is leaving many rural people behind.
For generations, miners — like family farmers in rural states — took pride in their roles in creating a prosperous nation. Shuttered storefronts across rural America are a daily reminder for rural people that their place in the fabric of society is vanishing. And so it is here in coal country.
Environmental advocates also need to look at how we fuel the conflict. When we work for a clean-energy future, we need to acknowledge that, for some of our fellow citizens, they see no place in it for them. It’s no wonder to me environmentalists are villainized for anti-coal positions that seem to disgrace a cultural identity deeply held by many in our state.
It’s easy to point the finger at West Virginia for favoring dirty fuels over public health, but the finger-pointers might try to understand the complexities of grasping onto a way of life when it’s all you’ve known — when you don’t see the same opportunities here that are available in other, more urban states.
When I talk to people in coal communities, I sense they know that a repeal of the Clean Power Plan won’t slow the decline of coal. Most commonly, the comment is, “Nothing will help bring it back the way it was.” I hear coal miners wanting a different set of options for their sons and grandchildren, and that the clock is ticking to do something different than leaning on a dying industry.
Instead of a public feud over the Clean Power Plan, most West Virginians are looking for ways to create job opportunities for displaced coal miners. For example, the RECLAIM Act — currently before Congress — would invest in economic development and diversification, while addressing restoration of the lands and waters most impacted by coal mining.
West Virginians are great people. We’re not backward. We’re not closed-minded. We, like most Americans, are looking for a way forward in a complicated world. It’s not just about West Virginia; it’s about us all.
This EPA, this administration, thrives on public anger and conflict. It’s a distraction. When people are fighting, they are not talking. And this is a time we need to be talking with one another. And listening.
That is my hope.
Angie Rosser is executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a statewide nonprofit organization promoting clean water and healthy rivers for all to enjoy. This previously appeared in The Charleston Gazette.