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What Will West Virginians Say About Trump’s Pro-Coal Plan?

The EPA's first (and perhaps only) public hearing on repealing climate change regulations is taking place in "Trump Digs Coal" country.

Justin Merriman/Getty

When Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president in early May of last year, after Senator Ted Cruz dropped out of the race, he celebrated by visiting the second largest coal-producing state in the country.  “We’re going to put the miners back to work. We are going to get those mines open,” Trump said in a speech in Charleston, West Virginia, where thousands of supporters held “TRUMP DIGS COAL” signs. “Oh, coal country. What they have done.”

On Election Day, this section of coal country voted in droves for Trump. So it’s no wonder Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chose Charleston as the location for a two-day public hearing on repealing coal regulations—the only scheduled hearing on the subject. Starting Tuesday, miners and environmentalists alike will speak directly to EPA officials about Administrator Scott Pruitt’s intent to undo the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Pruitt has said that he chose Charleston in order “to hear from those most impacted” by the Clean Power Plan. Many of the 271 individuals scheduled to speak this week are big-name supporters of coal: West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, who has been leading the legal fight against the Clean Power Plan; Russ Lorince, an executive for the second-largest U.S. coal mining company, Arch Coal; and Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, America’s largest privately owned coal mining company. Speakers from United Mine Workers of America, the West Virginia Coal Association, and the American Petroleum Institute are also on the docket.

But Charleston is neither homogeneously pro-coal nor anti-environment. In 2014, the capital city made national news when 10,000 gallons of MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, leaked into the Elk River, contaminating drinking water for 300,000 people. It was far from the the first time West Virginians faced an environmental disaster caused by coal or chemical industries. Over time, these disasters have energized a relatively small but vocal community of environmental advocates that plan to show up en masse at the EPA’s hearing. National green groups and public health groups are also sending representatives.

“The EPA is having this hearing here because they think everyone in West Virginia opposes the Clean Power Plan,” said Bill Price, an organizer for the Sierra Club in West Virginia. “We’re going to show them differently.”

Tuesday’s hearing, however, is expected to be mostly civil. The Sierra Club had planned to bring a giant inflatable inhaler to the state Capitol where the hearings are being held, which may have provoked some backlash, but their transportation plan fell through. Absent that, Price said there are no planned demonstrations or protests. Vivian Stockman, the vice director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, agreed. “At this point, I don’t think we’re expecting too much trouble,” she said. “But you never can rule it out either.”

But even in the war of words, pro-climate activists aren’t optimistic that their concerns will be heard or considered by the EPA. And they’re right not to be. Pruitt has made no secret of his positions: that climate change is not manmade nor a serious problem; that the opinions of industry players are more important than environmentalists; and that Obama’s climate regulation is unlawful. (Pruitt himself sued the EPA four times to stop the regulation before he became EPA administrator.) Public health and green groups aren’t likely to sway Pruitt with talking points about environmental stewardship or moral imperatives or the economic benefits of a clean-energy economy. At best, the hearing will allow them a chance to vent, and perhaps to change a few citizens’ minds.

The most interesting public comments, though, likely will come from non-affiliated, average West Virginians—if in fact they realize they have the opportunity to speak. The EPA only gave the public two weeks to sign up for a speaking slot, and publicized the hearing only by press release. Still, more than 60 names without affiliations appear on the EPA’s lists of expected speakers (although one of those names is “Ferg Ferg,” so who knows).

It will also be telling whether Pruitt decides to hold another hearing in a different city. He cited Charleston as the place where citizens are “most impacted” by repealing climate change regulations—but the people who actually live near polluting coal plants are mostly located in states like Illinois, Ohio, and Texas. Those people are disproportionately black, Latino, and Native American; 39 percent of those who live near coal-fired power plants are people of color, according to the NAACP. In reducing carbon emissions, the Clean Power Plan would also result in the reduction of air pollutants for those people. And yet, the only hearing on the Clean Power Plan repeal is in West Virginia, which is more than 90 percent white.

Asked if the EPA might hold another hearing elsewhere, an EPA spokesperson was non-committal. “We encourage stakeholders to participate, and submit comments online—including any requests for additional public meetings,” the spokesperson said in an email. “As this is a vital issue that affects people across the country, we will do our best to respond to requests for additional meetings.”