By Alexa Beyer
January 24, 2023 - When it was first created in 1999, West Virginia’s Office of Coalfield Community Development was meant to help the state’s coalfields look to a future after coal. Now, a bill moving through the Legislature and backed by the coal industry would shift the dormant office’s focus into promoting coal as the future.
“We think we [the coal industry] will continue to be a major part of the state’s industrial job base and economy for many decades to come, but frankly we need a little help from our government,” West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton told members of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee last week, as he answered questions about the legislation.
The bill amends the powers of the Office of Coalfield Community Development, which was originally charged with figuring out how to use infrastructure and assets — like wastewater facilities and developable land — to help build a community’s post-mining economy after surface mining was no longer taking place. But the new measure now would also have that office help the industry recruit new coal miners, as well as develop a public relations campaign to “educate the public on the economic and societal benefits provided by the coal industry.” It would be funded through the portion of coal severance taxes paid to the state.
Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, points to a poster in his Senate office.
Photo by Alexa Beyer
The change effectively turns the office into an arm for the coal industry, with little regard for how coalfield communities could or should thrive without the presence of active coal economies. The country’s decreasing reliance on coal is what makes many West Virginia coalfield communities in need of economic assistance and resources in the first place.
The day after the Senate Energy, Industry, and Mining Committee referred the bill to the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Rupie Phillips, R – Logan, said he views the education and coal miner recruitment efforts as the point of the bill.
“In my eyes, what [the bill] does is not necessarily going after these grants to build community centers and stuff.” He said he instead supported it “to get more coal miners trained; to educate people that coal is not bad.”
Phillips, who sits on both committees, pointed out a poster in his office that depicted the hundreds of uses for coal products: a tree with boxes around words like “insecticides” and “paper manufacture”. But he wanted to take a picture with the poster next to it: a World War II-era drawing made by the United States Fuel Administration depicting a coal miner next to a soldier holding a rifle: “Stand by the boys in the trenches: mine more coal,” it said.
Outside of the Senate, Phillips works for Gould Electric Motor Repair, a mining equipment repair company.
Recently, lawmakers have undertaken highly-visible efforts to engage the state’s coalfields in a conversation about the communities’ futures. Beginning in 2021, a House Select Committee formed by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw traveled around the state on a highly publicized listening tour through Moundsville, Logan, Welch, Beckley and Pursglove, speaking with hundreds of West Virginians about how their communities could sustain themselves in spite of the departure of the coal industry.
The result of that tour was a report that made more than 80 recommendations, including that the state help build thriving downtowns in coalfield communities, enact policies that lead to increased wages (including replacement wages for former coal miners) and provide help for miners not receiving health benefits.
Ultimately, only one bill from that committee ever became law. It created a grant-matching commission, with members that would be appointed by Governor Jim Justice, to match a portion of the economic development grants awarded to coalfield communities. Although the commission was supposed to file a report in December, the governor has still not appointed any members. (Phillips said he recently submitted suggestions for people to fill the role to Justice.)
This year, the new bill echoes some of the efforts of that still-unformed commission: it also delegates the coordination of federal grants to a state body, but in this case, it’s the Office of Coalfield Community Development. And rather than community feedback, the only person who was invited to speak to the bill during last week’s committee meeting was the coal industry’s top lobbyist.
West Virginia Coal Association’s Hamilton told lawmakers that the bill aimed to remove pressures on the supply-side of the industry, as well as “push back a little bit” against the Biden Administration’s efforts to move the nation towards renewable energy.
For Angie Rosser, executive director of the advocacy group West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the lack of input from affected communities is a red flag.
“I’m troubled that I don’t see a reflection of the findings from the series of listening sessions where people living in these communities had a direct line of input,” she said.
“The input on this bill seems to be coming through the lobbying entity for the coal industry, and I’m not hearing in this debate so far input or representation at the community level.”