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Revolt in West Virginia’s Coal Country

As protests rage in the State Capitol, a coal miner’s daughter is calling out the fossil-fuel industry in an insurgent campaign for the U.S. Senate

Revolt in West Virginia's Coal Country

Student protesters demonstrate against Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship as he speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1, 2018.

Spencer Platt/Getty

On a sunny January afternoon, Paula Jean Swearengin, a 43-year-old accounting clerk and single mother of four from Coal City, West Virginia, steers a red rental SUV up a narrow back road in southern Kanawha County. She points at trailer homes caked in a fine layer of black soot, blown off the coal trucks that thunder through the area – “You see the coal dust on these homes!” she says – and stops at a gurgling creek glowing orange. The waste rock of a nearby mountaintop-removal mining site, latent with hazardous elements like selenium, is dumped into valleys, where the toxic chemicals leach into streams. According to a number of studies, the process also increases the rates of lung cancer, kidney disease and birth defects in surrounding communities. “People are dropping like flies,” says Swearengin, whose activism has turned into a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate this year.

Despite America’s turn toward natural gas and renewables, 17 percent of U.S. energy still comes from coal, and approximately 12,000 West Virginians work in the industry. Hunks of coal are sold at the airport gift shop in Charleston, and the state’s beloved college football team, the West Virginia Mountaineers, touch a piece of coal for good luck before entering their stadium. A popular program called Coal in the Classroom has sent industry representatives into schools to educate “children about the history and importance of coal.” “They’ve fed us this propaganda that coal miners should be enemies with environmental organizers,” says Swearengin. “I am a proud coal miner’s daughter, but I’m not going to worship that black rock.”

It was just more than a year ago that Swearengin, seated on a stage in a high school auditorium in McDowell County, described her state’s essential dilemma to Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders. “When the coal industry’s gone, we’re not going to have anything left,” she acknowledged, before listing the devastation the industry had caused her personally: “I’ve watched my neighbor’s children get cancer. I buried my daddy when he was 54 years old. I watched my granddaddy suffocate to death.” At that point, Swearengin, weeping, reached over to hug Sanders, who consoled her in an embrace. “We need help,” she said. It was a central moment, she now says, in her decision to launch a political campaign. “I see the senator as a public servant,” she says. “And I think they’ve lost touch. They’ve become immune to people’s suffering.”

“Coal kills,” says miner turned activist Chuck Nelson. “That is what’s so criminal about it. Politicians know that and they allow it.”

Her opponent in the May 8th primary, Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s sole national-level Democrat, has been in state politics since the time of Reagan, serving as West Virginia’s secretary of state and governor. Most recently, in the U.S. Senate, he has taken on the role of the Democrats’ token red-state oracle, appearing in national media to decode his state’s politics and answer softball questions about Trump country. Although current conventional wisdom holds that the state is red through and through, Manchin remains, according to a poll conducted last summer by West Virginia MetroNews, the state’s most popular politician. For Swearengin to confront him, one West Virginia operative recently told Vice, is “like David versus Goliath, if David didn’t have a sling or a rock.”

Swearengin has tried to tap into a
long-simmering populism in West Virginia politics. Much has been made of the
fact that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in every single one of West
Virginia’s 55 counties, but that doesn’t explain another lesson from the 2016
election: Sanders beat Clinton in every single one of West Virginia’s 55
counties, too. In February, Lissa Lucas, a backyard chicken farmer and author
from Ritchie County, called out legislators on the statehouse floor for letting
the oil-and-gas industry write its laws and was dragged away by a pair of
security guards – she is currently running for the state House of Delegates.
Weeks later, West Virginia’s public-school teachers, who receive among the
worst pay in the nation – about $15,000 less than the national average – yet
must deal with a student population so needy they regularly spend their own
money to feed and clothe them, held one of the largest illegal strikes in the
history of American education. Teachers walked out of schools in all of West
Virginia’s 55 counties – joined by bus drivers, custodians and other public
workers – and rallied for nine days. “We’re not gonna take it!” the
crowd hollered in unison from the lower rotunda at the Capitol in Charleston,
imitating the Twisted Sister song.

This is the segment of the state Swearengin aims to attract with a platform that includes Medicare for all, increased minimum wage, tuition-free state college, legalized marijuana and a major public investment in infrastructure, including alternative energies like wind and solar. “There is a strong liberal democratic faction that has re-emerged in the state,” says West Virginia University political historian William Gorby. “It will be interesting to see what this group does.”

Manchin, who voted to confirm Trump picks like Jeff Sessions, Neil Gorsuch and Scott Pruitt, and has politely sat down to dinner with the president, is decidedly not a member of the Resistance. A former head of a coal brokerage firm – a lucrative business interest he maintained even while in the Senate – Manchin has the backing of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents more than 35,000 current and retired West Virginia miners. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has traveled down to Charleston to speak on Manchin’s behalf. He has more than $5 million to spend on the election, having received more than $700,000 from the mining industry since 2009; Swearengin, with an average donation of $15, has raised around $300,000. (Manchin’s campaign did not return requests for comment.)

Since declaring her candidacy, Swearengin has relied on little more than social media and a pithy campaign-trail message – “We’ve provided power to America, and now it’s time to empower ourselves” – to become a star on Twitter, posting frank accounts of her state’s tragedies and linking them to Manchin’s policies. “She is a powerhouse,” says filmmaker Rachel Lears, who is working on a documentary that features Swearengin and three other female candidates. “Running for Senate is a matter of survival for her.”

Pretty much the first thing Swearengin tells me is that it’s not just a matter of survival for her, but for her entire struggling state. “The people here are treated like collateral damage,” she tells me on our drive, somewhere between the coal-dusted homes and selenium-laden creek. West Virginians still “live in conditions comparable to a Third World country,” she says. “And what does that say about America?”

Two days later, Swearengin introduces me to Chuck Nelson, a retired coal miner she met at a festival to protest mountaintop-removal mining around 2012. Nelson loaded coal in underground mines for nearly 30 years, seven of which were spent employed by Massey Energy, a coal company owned by Don Blankenship. “The outlaw mining regime,” as Nelson calls Massey, ripped out safety equipment, including ventilation systems, to boost the pace of production. Nelson has had liver failure and kidney disease, and now has black lung, which occurs as coal dust particles accumulate in the respiratory system. Blankenship, who recently finished a yearlong prison sentence related to a 2010 explosion in one of his mines that killed 29 people, is now running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

In the 1990s, mountaintop-removal mining operations were set up on the ridgeline outside Sylvester, the small mining town where Nelson lived most of his life. His wife’s asthma worsened. Neighbors died of seemingly rare cancers. The wind blew coal dust from a nearby plant and deposited it in Nelson’s home. “There was coal dust in the refrigerator,” he says. “That’s how fucking bad it was.” Now, at 62, he serves as a guide for the next generation of activists. “Coal kills at each step of the cycle – the mining, the cleaning, the transportation,” says Nelson. “That is what’s so criminal about it. Our politicians know that, and they allow it to happen.”

A coal-preparation plant run by a subsidiary of Massey Energy used to be located a few hundred feet from the nearby Marsh Fork Elementary School. Students found coal dust on their desks, their lockers and wafting through the cafeteria, says Debbie Jarrell, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, who for years battled the state to relocate the school. A coal-slurry -impoundment – which holds 2.8 billion gallons of a sludgelike residual of the coal-preparation process – sits just up the hill. Family members were so worried about the impoundment breaking over the heads of their children, they often kept kids home when it rained.

Protests erupted during the summer of 2005, as
parents and organizers demanded action by the state. Manchin, then the
governor, refused to acknowledge the health hazards. An “extensive
investigation revealed no evidence of health risks or regulatory
noncompliance,” read a letter from his office. “Manchin didn’t see
the water fountains getting covered with coal dust,” says Nelson. “He
didn’t see the kids getting sick, he didn’t see the teachers dying of cancer.
He just ignored all that shit!” (In 2013, a new school opened a few miles
away.)

Swearengin and I jump on ATVs to see the Brushy Fork coal-slurry impoundment, the largest in America, holding back roughly 9 billion gallons of toxic waste behind a dam that at over 900 feet is the tallest in the U.S. – and like the rest of West Virginia’s 100-plus coal-slurry impoundments, made of mining waste rock. In 1972, a failure at the nearby Buffalo Creek impoundment sent a 30-foot-high tidal wave of viscous coal slurry through a series of communities, wiping out hundreds of homes and killing 125 people. Jack Spadaro, the former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, who was called into the Buffalo Creek breach as a 23-year-old engineer, tells me Brushy Fork’s dam is similarly experiencing “excessive pore pressure” that could cause it to fail. The impoundment, he adds, rests atop unstable underground mines. “It makes me mad,” says Swearengin. “This is sitting over people’s heads. Just another disaster waiting to happen.”

Across Appalachia, surface mining has demolished more than 500 mountains – some 2 million acres of forested hills – and contaminated 2,000 miles of streams. “If another country came in here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war,” says Swearengin after our ATV ride brings us to a denuded ridgeline that overlooks the scummy black lake. “But a company can do it.”

A few days earlier on Kayford Mountain, an intact peak sandwiched between two massive operations, Swearengin offered an alternative vision for West Virginia’s mountaintops. We had ascended to a bluff that looks down into the bowl of the decapitated mountain. Inside, a gray-green plain was strewn with shattered rocks; truck treads were still visible along the paths used by the industry to haul the coal and waste rock. “This isn’t fit for a rattlesnake,” Swearengin had said. “But visualize this being a hemp farm, or windmills, or solar farms, something! Instead of just being a desolate moonscape that’s left and forgotten.”

“If another country came in here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war,” says Swearengin. “But a company can do it.”

It may sound starry-eyed, but the state Legislature has already started moving on some of these initiatives. Last year, West Virginia passed a bill allowing licensed residents to grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes, and the state Legislature is in the process of creating an in-state seed-certification program. (In April, bipartisan legislation to facilitate hemp farming was introduced by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell.) In northern West Virginia, former state Sen. Mike Manypenny showed me around an 11-acre plot of old greenhouses that he is currently retrofitting for hemp production, a crop he aims to sell for its CBD oil, a booming tincture in the health-and-wellness -market. “I think hemp is going to be the next cash crop of West Virginia,” says Vinnie Samolis, who is presently working to model a program that could be used on small plots by landowners across the region. “It would be great for people to have a choice: You can go work in the coal mines or grow hemp.”

For now, West Virginia remains perilously tied to fossil fuels. The state lost 17,000 jobs between 2012 and 2016, with a significant portion of them related to a downturn in the coal industry, according to a report published by West Virginia University. While the number of jobs in the nation has jumped 83 percent since 1975, the number of jobs in Appalachia has increased by only 50 percent. A 2015 study by the Social Science Research Council reported that in certain Appalachian counties, like McDowell in West Virginia or Martin in Kentucky (a coal county where fetid tap water has recently made national news), over 40 percent of youths ages 16 to 24 are “disconnected” – neither employed nor enrolled in school. “Some parts of the country,” the report states, “are being left behind.”

At Opportunity House, a drug-treatment center in Buckhannon where Swearengin has occasionally volunteered her time, director Matt Kerner, a former addict himself who is running for the state House of Delegates, introduces me to a roomful of people whom, he says, the state has intentionally neglected: “Just another example of how around the world, places rich with natural resources end up people-poor. Corporations come in and extract whatever it is they want, and what we’re left with is some double-wide trailers and old trucks, which leads to despair and addiction.”

One snowy afternoon, Swearengin, along with several other West Virginia progressive candidates, makes a campaign stop in the basement of the New Beginning Apostolic Church in Minden, a small town of 250 people in southern West Virginia. Until the early 1980s, the nearby Shaffer Equipment Co., which built electrical substations for the coal-mining industry, used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in much of its equipment. Banned by the EPA in 1979, PCBs are known to ravage the human body’s nervous, immune and reproductive systems, and are especially hazardous to children. In the Minden area, the chemicals often leaked, or were outright dumped, into the creek running through town, burned in open fires, and illegally buried at a number of sites. There’s an unmarked dump on the edge of the community filled with PCB-laced transformers and coal sludge – along with illegal radioactive waste from a nearby hospital. According to Brandon Richardson, the founder of Headwaters Defense, as many as 150 people connected to the community – more than half the town’s population – have been diagnosed with cancer in the past four years.

The goal of the event is to get Gov. Jim Justice to push forward a recommendation to the EPA that Minden be designated a Superfund Site, which could provide funding to enable residents to be relocated. (Weeks later, Justice released a statement vowing to take action.) “I can stand on my porch and name 40 people who’ve died of cancer,” says Annetta Coffman, a Minden resident who explains that the toxicity of the area is so bad the EPA has asked residents “not to grow gardens.” Amy Garrison Ebans, a young mother, recently became sick with breast cancer. “I was a water bug,” she says, describing how she swam in the Minden creek as a child, even though her mother had warned her about pollution. “You don’t listen because you’re a kid. Now you pay for it.”

Swearengin has had to develop her own art of
political campaigning. “Early on, I went to a lot of these establishment
dinners, rubbing noses with the elite, and I wished I wouldn’t have wasted as
much time trying to reach people who have probably already made up their
minds,” she says. But in a church room filled with the survivors of an
industrial disaster, she seems at home. “If you don’t know, I’m Paula Jean
Swearengin, and I’m running for Senate against Joe Manchin,” she
announces. “And one of the reasons I am is because of struggles like this.”

Swearengin grew up in the southern West Virginia coal-mining town of Iroquois, where a dump of coal waste and other hazardous byproducts smoldered in the surrounding hills, sending plumes of toxic smoke, containing sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide, down on her community. “It burned 24 hours a day,” she says. She lived in an old coal-company house, with wood siding and a big porch. “There were a lot of birth defects there,” she says – her younger sister was born with a cyst on the base of her brain. Her grandfather, who had worked for decades in an underground coal mine, was diagnosed with black lung, and died in 2001.

Around that time, she and her family settled in Lester, another small mining town, where coal slurry was being injected beneath the community. Her children developed asthma. A disproportionate number of her neighbors had cancer. “Around my block, I could count eight people,” says Swearengin. One neighbor’s daughter, a 12-year-old girl named Destiny, had a rare form of bone cancer. In calling local officials to see what was behind this unlikely cluster, Swearengin discovered that a little girl in a neighboring town had contracted the same type of cancer. That, she says, “is when I became active.”

Between various jobs – manager of a urologist’s office, assistant at a medical-billing company – she attended rallies against mountaintop-removal mining. At a Kayford Mountain demonstration, she met a charismatic activist named Larry Gibson. “Larry made me feel like I was a part of something,” says Swearengin. Just four months before he died of a heart attack in 2012, he shaved Swearengin’s head at a protest on the steps of the state Capitol. “I cried,” she says. “I didn’t want to give up my hair, but I felt I had to do something radical to get attention.”

Whether that radical energy can fuel electoral wins in West Virginia is the unanswered question. Progressives in the state Legislature, says Gorby, the political historian, “are debating issues like the legalization of marijuana, raising the state’s minimum wage and stopping the cuts to higher education.” He also points out that in 2010, activist and former Rep. Ken Hechler, then 95 years old, ran a primary campaign against Manchin to fill the Senate seat vacated by the late Robert Byrd. “I’m not really running for the Senate,” Hechler, who died in 2016, told Salon. “I’m running to enable the people of West Virginia to register at the polls their opposition to [the] devastating practice” of mountaintop removal. He still managed to pull out 17 percent of the vote.

“People think we’re a bunch of hillbillies,” says former state Sen. Charlotte Pritt, a longtime advocate for the environment, women’s rights and worker safety who beat Manchin in the Democratic primary of the 1996 gubernatorial race. Pointing to the wave of populism that marked the state’s 2016 electorate, she says, “West Virginians were smarter than the rest of the country; they knew what was up in the last election.” But the general feeling among the state’s political observers is that, despite the present progressive energy, Swearengin faces steep odds. “Politically speaking, this is an extreme long shot,” popular West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval tells me in January. “I don’t see this mobilized progressive grassroots movement rising up to propel her to upend the giant Joe Manchin.”

And yet, weeks later, West Virginia teachers from the state’s 55 counties stormed the Capitol. Similar strikes broke out in Oklahoma and Kentucky, two other states with economies that rely heavily on fossil fuels, as well as Colorado and Arizona. Katrina Ruff, a teacher in Oklahoma, told The New York Times in April that West Virginians “gave us the guts to stand up for ourselves.” At the New Beginning Apostolic Church in Minden, Swearengin’s voice is filled with emotion. “I don’t think we should have to sacrifice ourselves for our jobs,” she says. Her audience is nodding and listening. “I think we need to unite, to raise the voices of West Virginia. No one should be living like you all are.”

Afterward, Tim Comer, a 42-year-old mechanic on
disability because of ailments he believes could be connected to the
contamination, tells me, “The lady right there seems to be real.” His
father died of lymphoma, and his sister developed cancer as a teenager.
“It seems like she has a heart and cares for the little people, like she
is fighting for people like me,” says Comer. “She can represent me,
she can count on my vote.”

Recent republican polling shows Blankenship is still competitive in a matchup that also includes Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. A March poll by Axios/SurveyMonkey showed that an unnamed Republican candidate beats Manchin 52 percent to 43 percent. Republican attack ads have targeted Manchin for, among other things, his superdelegate vote for Clinton. If Manchin beats Swearengin, he will likely face the toughest general election of his career. “If Manchin loses, he will lose on his record,” says Selina Vickers, a social worker and former Sanders delegate running for the West Virginia House of Delegates. “He will lose because of his decision to turn his back on the West Virginia people.” Charlotte Pritt is firmer: “Don Blankenship will win the Republican nomination, and unless Paula Jean Swearengin is running, he will win” the Senate seat.

On the way back to the Charleston area, Swearengin shows me a pipe that drains antimony and arsenic out of an abandoned underground coal mine and into a pond beside the road. “There are sites like this all over West Virginia,” she says. “Nobody knows how many because they haven’t been mapped.” The smell is horrendous. Waste from the pond pours into a creek that enters the Coal River, which many of the communities we have visited rely on for well water. “Everyone knows it’s wrong, but they don’t know how to fight back,” says Swearengin. “We call it Appalachian Stockholm Syndrome: It feels like we are hostages and there’s nothing we can do.”

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