For two days, the heart of coal country became the staging ground for the battle over the future of United States energy and environmental policy. It turned out better than many green groups had expected.
Green groups viewed the choice of venue, West Virginia's small state capital of Charleston, a solid five hour drive from Washington, DC, as a ploy to stage the hearing in Trump-friendly political terrain and make it difficult for environmental activists to participate.
Coal industry representatives meanwhile greeted the decision as a sign that the Trump administration was serious about its efforts to reverse the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the hallmark environmental regulation devised under Obama to force states to curb carbon emissions from power plants.
Trump's promise for West Virginia
Coal-burning plants would be among the most negatively affected by the CPP, as would West Virginia, a state heavily dependent on coal mining. In last year's presidential election Donald Trump won the state by the highest margin in the country, in part because of the strong backing he received from mine workers there after promising to bring back mining jobs.
The Clean Power Plan was issued by the Obama administration in 2015, but never went into effect because the US Supreme Court in a narrow decision last year blocked its implementation until the ongoing legal battle, prompted by a request from 27 states and business groups, is resolved.
Whatever the true intent of the EPA for holding the public hearing in the heart of coal country may have been, it certainly did not prevent scores of environmental groups and concerned citizens from across the country to make the journey to West Virginia and have their voices heard under the state capitol's golden dome. Taken together with the testimony from mining industry representatives and politicians, a robust and civil debate ensued.
Elisabeth Scott, a retired educator from Winfield, West Virginia was one of the more than 250 people who had registered to speak at the hearing on the Clean Power Plan. On Tuesday she drove the 35 miles to Charleston to read the two-page statement of remarks she had prepared for the event before a panel of three EPA officials assembled in one of three rooms assigned for the public hearing in the state capitol.
Scott, who had highlighted the key points of her statement in bright yellow, said she lives near three power plants and opposes the repeal of the CPP, citing the negative effects of coal mining on the health of citizens and workers.
"At a time when health care for many folks in Appalachia is being threatened, repealing the CPP and delaying a replacement for more research is wrong," she said. Scott also took aim at Trump's promise to revitalize the coal industry. "It is frankly very deceptive to our communities and our miners to talk about how this repeal will save their jobs and bring back goal."
The decline in coal, Scott added, had little to do with regulations, but was largely a consequence of a shift towards natural gas, a trend that will not go away even if the CPP was repealed.
Preventing future job losses
Gene Trisko, the counsel of the United Mine Workers of America, who supports the effort to repeal the CPP, also testified at the hearing, but has no illusion that the mining jobs lost will return if the CPP is scrapped. "The jobs that were lost won't come back," he said on Tuesday evening after the hearing, adding that "this is about the prevention of the loss of future jobs."
Earlier that day Trisko had told the panel of EPA officials that the implementation of the CPP, which he deemed an illegal rule, "would lead to the elimination of about two-thirds of the nation's coal mining jobs and related electric utility coal generation."
That is not an argument that Juan Carlos Perez, who also testified at the hearing is willing to buy. "I think there is a different way to talk about that than say this kills jobs," said Perez who is in charge of environmental policy at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "I feel that's a way of using scare tactics at times rather than being open to conversation about innovation."
Latino community ready to fight
Asked about the importance of the Clean Power Plan for the Latino community in the US, Perez said since one in two Latinos live in areas where air quality standards do not fully meet EPA rules, the issue is crucial. "This is something that our community does want to fight for."
He noted that while he supported holding the hearing in the heart of coal country, he also hoped for additional hearings in places like Texas and California that would allow easier access for impacted residents from those states.
While Lindsay Pace, Kelly Nichols and Karina Castillo might also have appreciated a more centrally located venue for the hearing, the three women nevertheless traveled from Tennessee, Illinois and Florida respectively to advocate against the repeal of the CPP.
Stop pitting groups against each other
The three women are regional organizers for Mom's Clean Air Force, a national anti-pollution advocacy group focused on families and children.
"I am a mom and I have two young children," said Pace. "The clean power plan offers the most health protection to them in terms of our changing climate."
In her testimony, Kelly Nichols noted that she lives in a county in Illinois that consistently gets a failing grade by the American Lung Association for its substandard air quality and that the Clean Power Plan would reduce dangerous pollutants like mercury, a key concern in her region.
But Nichols also took pains to explain that while she believes coal mining is a dying industry she also understands the concerns of the workers and their families impacted by the coal's decline.
"I don't want some coal miners family to not have employment and for their kids to be left vulnerable," she said. "That's not fair either. So what's the solution? I think that's what we should talk about instead of pitting different factions against each other. We all want a healthy planet to live on, good jobs and healthy kids."