Coal Tattoo

‘Stand strong’: Can West Virginians work together?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

Here in West Virginia, there’s a lot going on up at the statehouse. Some might say that, judging from the headlines, it’s hard to find a lot of progress, at least if you consider progress bringing people together to work for a better future for our state.

First, there’s the movement by some lawmakers  to greatly weaken the landmark chemical tank safety and drinking water protection law passed after last year’s Freedom Industries spill and the resulting water crisis. Then there’s the promise from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association that they’re going to keep pressing for what the West Virginia Rivers Coalition calls the “the most drastic weakening of statewide drinking water protections” since the state established water quality standards in the 1960s.

Then, there’s the new Republican leadership in the Legislature, doing their best to spend a lot of time on the most divisive issues they can think of (see here, here and here, for example).

It’s easy on the one hand to almost dismiss this stuff, saying things like, “West Virginians voted for these guys, so they have to live with it,” or even — something I hear increasingly from younger West Virginians — that they’re tired of the politics here and would rather just move away.  It’s just as easy to pretend that issues like the re-emergence of the push for a “right-to-work” law aren’t really that important anymore.

But I can’t escape the conclusion of former Gazette columnist William Miernyk, writing many years ago — the last time right-to-work was being pushed:

The major objection to right-to-work legislation, the bottom line, if I may be forgiven the use of the abominable cliche, is that it is the most divisive kind of legislation imaginable. The only way residents of the Mountain State can hope to cope with its myriad problems is by cooperation among all segments of our society. The best way I know to ensure that such cooperation will not be forthcoming is to pass a right-to-work law.

That’s why, really, this week is ending with what West Virginians should really see as perhaps a small bit of victory, of people who are thinking about the future coming together — even if they didn’t really mean to — to voice opposition to more divisive proposals.

I’m talking, of course, about yesterday’s public hearing on the West Virginia Coal Association’s centerpiece of legislation for this year’s session. As described in our Gazette story this morning:

Representatives of working coal miners and from the state’s environmental community turned out Thursday to oppose a legislative initiative from the West Virginia Coal Association, saying the bill wrongly weakens protection for workers and water quality.

Leaders of the United Mine Workers union spoke out against the provisions of the “Coal Jobs and Safety Act” during a House Energy Committee public hearing, as did representatives from the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Environmental Council.

UMWA officials don’t like the Coal Association’s efforts to roll back important workplace protections for coal miners. Environmental groups don’t like the industry’s insistence on weakening water quality standards that protect us all. As Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said:

This bill is a real effort to divide the environmental and the labor folks.  It’s saying that we can try to keep the environment clean or we can protect jobs, and that’s a fundamentally false dichotomy. What we’re seeing here is the labor and environmental communities both coming out and opposing this bill.

Bill Cole

Newly sworn in Senate President Bill Cole speaks to fellow members of the West Virginia Legislature in Charleston, W.Va., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015.  (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Craig Cunningham)

It’s hard to believe that some of this push toward divisive issues isn’t really all about a different sort of future — about the future of political campaigns, and the money that the Career Campaign Consultants know that these issues can help bring into the state from the likes of the Koch Brothers — far more than it’s really about the future of real West Virginians.

Still, if you watch and listen at the Capitol, you hear all sorts of things.

For example, some Democratic leaders, now that they’re the minority party, want to grumble around about process … about how the majority isn’t giving adequate time for debate, or voting on things they haven’t seen. Whatever. Come on now, are they really pretending that the recent Democratic leadership didn’t play around with “committee substitutes” that almost no one had seen before they were voted on, or that major pieces of legislation concerning natural gas drilling and coal-mine safety weren’t negotiated in private with the industries those bills affected? Have they forgotten how the state’s Democratic governor thought an industry-only discussion amounted to a “stakeholder” meeting on the chemical tank bill last year? And while some of the Democratic minority’s plaintiffs lawyers-legislators may have really good arguments about who would be hurt by GOP-sought changes in West Virginia’s legal system, if those particular legislators are really so interested in public health and safety, why are some  of them, such as former House Speaker Tim Miley, co-sponsoring bills to weaken that chemical tank safety law passed only last year?

Like during the public hearing earlier this week on HB2004 — the bill aimed at ensuring the state DEP can focus on little except protecting the coal industry when it writes a plan to comply with EPA’s Clean Power Plan — when we heard Ben Beakes, a lobbyist for Alpha Natural Resources, repeat over and over that lawmakers should “stand strong” against Obama and the EPA. It’s as if the West Virginia Legislature stands strong enough it somehow has the power to repeal basic laws of physics and geology that are driving climate change and the decline of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2Gosh, it even sounded like DEP Secretary Randy Huffman wasn’t so sure this bill was that great of an idea.  And despite what some in the environmental community love to say about DEP and about Randy, another reason to be hopeful that West Virginians can find ways to work together is to look at what the DEP secretary said this week about the industry’s push to strip rivers and streams statewide of their “Category A” drinking water protections:

People want to locate where the water is as clean as possible. That is our best economic development tool, not making the standards as low as possible.

As I’ve written before, it’s hard for folks who live every day with mountaintop removal and natural gas “fracking” and wonder what DEP is doing about those things to give DEP credit for its stance so far on Category A. But those folks should also look at what DEP has said publicly so far this session about efforts to weaken the Above-Ground Storage Tank bill … maybe there’s are more areas of common ground where citizens could work with this administration to make things better. And maybe the folks within DEP’s mining division and oil and gas office could use some of the good will that the agency has with some in the environmental community right now to revisit some of their policies — even some of the agency’s ongoing rulemaking items.

For far too long, too many political discussions in West Virginia have focused on the single issue of whether President Obama is for or against something. That’s really the only game that some of the Career Political Consultants have. It’s hard to blame them when it’s worked for them.

Barack Obama

But look at another event this week, the release by the White House of the president’s proposals for next year’s federal budget. Here’s what I wrote about part of that budget proposal for the Gazette:

Coalfield communities struggling with mounting job losses as the nation’s energy markets restructure would receive hundreds of millions of dollars in new money to help create jobs and plan economic diversification programs, under the new budget proposed Monday by President Obama.

The administration is proposing $1 billion in new spending over the next five years to clean up abandoned strip mines and $2 million in tax credits aimed at spurring innovation on technology to capture carbon pollution from power plants. Obama’s proposal also includes $3.9 billion over 10 years to protect health and retirement benefits for retired coal miners, officials said.

Obama is also asking the Republican-controlled Congress to provide $56 million in new money for existing programs at the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Labor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help laid-off workers and to assist coalfield communities with economic development.

So these are good things, right — money to put people to work and to clean up old coal industry messes, and to ensure pensions and health-care benefits for retired miners?

Well, if you look at the responses to the president’s budget from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and from Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney, and Evan Jenkins, all R-W.Va., it’s like these proposals don’t really exist.

At least Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., mentioned them:

The President took some steps in the right direction, and included funding that will help West Virginia, but he did not go far enough. I am pleased that he finally acknowledged the need for coal by calling for smart investments in infrastructure and clean coal technology – including carbon capture and sequestration. I’m also encouraged that he agreed with my request to protect health care and pension plans for our hardworking miners and their families.

And Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin kinda dipped his toe in the water in this statement issued by his communications director, Chris Stadelman:

Gov. Tomblin is supportive of any effort to provide assistance to our miners in their current jobs and, when necessary, with additional training to find work in another field if that is a choice they make. He also supports providing their families with access to accelerated educational opportunities and job-training programs. Members of the governor’s staff will, in conjunction with federal officials, continue to review the president’s proposal. It is encouraging, though, to see a plan that includes both job-training assistance for our hardworking miners and an acknowledgement that coal will continue to be part of our energy mix in the future, as well as the need to continue investing and exploring clean coal technologies.

None of these political leaders seems capable of saying something like, “While we obviously disagree with President Obama on some issues, we’re very pleased that he’s proposing significant funding to help with vitally important issues, and we stand willing to work with him to see that these investments become a reality.” What would be so bad about saying something like that — or more importantly, really working to make it happen?

Because, like Bill Miernyk wrote back in 1987:

The only way residents of the Mountain State can hope to cope with its myriad problems is by cooperation among all segments of our society.