Coal Tattoo

Coal and a better West Virginia?

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Over at A Better West Virginia.com, Jason Keeling has been encouraging online West Virginians to commemorate West Virginia Day by contributing thoughts about how to make our beloved state a better place to live, work, play, raise a family, etc. My buddy Doug Imbrogno profiled the efforts in today’s Gazette.

I’d like to think Coal Tattoo is making some small contribution to the effort, by in its own way passing on news and encouraging conversations about coal’s historic — and future — role in our state’s economy and environment. The Gazette has graciously allowed me much time away from our print editions and other online products to focus on Coal Tattoo, but the blog is really just an extension of what I’ve tried to do (and I think our newspaper as a whole) has tried to do for so many years.

Of course, the Gazette is a popular target for some folks who don’t like our coverage of one issue or another. If you talk to the coal industry, they’ll say we’re out to ruin them. But if you talk to many environmentalists, they think we don’t cover mountaintop removal very well at all.

But I think one look at our collection of Special Projects shows our efforts, not only on environmental issues that I’ve made into my specialty, but all sorts of broad topics that affect the state.

Jason was kind enough to specifically ask me to provide some thoughts related to the issues I cover, so here goes …

Through the climate crisis and the continued outrage over the damage caused by mountaintop removal, West Virginians are confronted with major challenges about our coal industry. While coal no longer has the statewide economic impacts it once did, it is still a major source of good jobs in coal-producing counties — and in some places is really the only economic engine. But the state has never really fully faced up to questions like: If coal is so good, why are all of the places it is mined still so poor? That’s changing though, because the global challenge of dealing with global warming, and the national furor over mountaintop removal, are pushing us along.

Among the most crucial issues are how to find a way for West Virginia (and the rest of Appalachian coal country) to get involved in what President Obama and others say will be a “green energy” explosion of new jobs. I’ve written about that in numerous blog posts, here, here, here and here, with a focus on finding ways to take advantage of federal money to clean up abandoned mines to put laid-off strip-miners back to work.

This issue has also come up most recently, when the Obama administration announced its new plans for more closely reviewing mountaintop removal permits.  But unfortunately, this particular part of their plan was at the bottom of the administration’s list of priorities:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

And also unfortunately, the Manchin administration has focused on its new law on post-mining land uses, which includes few teeth to really change the longstanding problem of WVDEP not forcing mine operators to include solid post-mining development plans in their mountaintop removal permits.

The most fascinating new development is the new interest by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, our state’s most powerful politician, in taking a look at the impacts of mountaintop removal, which I blogged about earlier this week.

Byrd has the political ability to re-shape debates over these important issues, and it appears that he’s headed in that direction.  To quote again from Coal River Valley resident Bo Webb’s letter to Byrd:

Sen. Byrd, as a grandfather, I write to you: If our grandchildren are going to have any jobs and future at all in West Virginia, we must get beyond the stranglehold of mountaintop removal coal operations and find a way to bring new jobs and life to our mountain communities.

This could be your greatest legacy, among many, Sen. Byrd.