Big Coal, Cold Cash, and the GOP
For more than a century, coal mining has been part of life in West Virginia's Logan County. But when the Mingo Logan Coal Company (a subsidiary of the $3.2 billion behemoth Arch Coal) proposed to blast away nearly 2,300 acres of ancient mountains and bury forever seven miles of Appalachian waterways beneath rock, dirt, and toxic mining waste, even locals were shocked by the destructive reach of the plan.
Paula Swearengin, who lives outside of Beckley, in the heart of coal country once mined by her father and his father before him, spoke for many of her neighbors when she stood up at a 2010 public hearing and said, "The coal industry will get their piece of the pie. But it doesn't make it right for companies to bury our rivers and streams, poisoning our children and destroying communities. Clean water should not be an option in America; it's a right. And a miner should not have to choose between poisoning his child and his job."
The Environmental Protection Agency agreed. In January 2011 it withdrew the company's waste disposal permit, concluding that the project "would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend."
But the story didn't end there. The coal industry's man in Washington -- Representative David McKinley, Republican of West Virginia -- immediately introduced a spending bill amendment to block the EPA from pulling the permit. McKinley, a first-term representative, received more political contributions from coal mining interests last year -- $153,378 -- than any other member of Congress, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
And so, a month after the EPA decision, a bitterly divided House voted to strip the agency of its authority to prevent Arch Coal from destroying Appalachian mountains and streams. The vote was 240 to 182, with 223 Republicans backing the measure and 168 Democrats opposed.
That lopsided party-line vote was part of a much wider campaign in the House. Over the course of 2011, House Republican leaders ordered an astonishing 191 votes -- in committees and before the full chamber -- to weaken, delay, or derail the regulatory safeguards we all rely on to preserve our environment and our health. Like McKinley's coal mine measure, most of these efforts haven't made it through the Senate and its Democratic majority. Democrats, though, aren't the only ones alarmed by the GOP's anti-environment blitz in the House.
"I've been appalled," said former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who served as EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. "Republicans have been part of the environmental movement since the get-go," she told me, "and it just drives me nuts that we now seem to be walking away from it as if it were something bad or we don't believe in science or the environment."
In the long train of GOP votes last year, the McKinley bill in particular ripped through the heart of West Virginia coal country like dynamite blasting open a seam. After all, two years after the 2010 explosion that killed 29 West Virginia workers at the Upper Big Branch mine, neither the House nor the Senate has gotten around to strengthening mining safety standards. And yet, when coal company profits were put at risk, the House took action within weeks.
"I think we have the best-paid politicians that the coal industry can buy," Paula Swearengin said when we spoke recently. "The people of Appalachia are treated like we're just disposable casualties of the coal industry. We live in the land of the lost, because nobody wants to hear us."