It was the quote heard ‘round Appalachia: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton said it in March, as part of longer remarks on how to create jobs in perpetually struggling coal country. The plan she outlined was to essentially allow Appalachia’s already-dying coal industry to perish, but to replace it with a thriving renewable energy businesses. Job training would then be provided to people who lost their jobs in the coal bust. “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget these people,” Clinton said at the time, referring to former coal miners.
I think she’s going to have a little bit of a rough time.
Still, the outcry to her initial quote was swift. Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — one of Clinton’s biggest coal country allies — said he thought her willingness to get coal out of West Virginia was “horrific.”
“I called her … I said, ‘My God,’“ Manchin told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “I said, ‘Hillary, listen. You probably don’t need West Virginia. Maybe you don’t even think you can win it and don’t need to win it. I really don’t know how your team is evaluating our state.’”
Fast forward two months, and Clinton may need West Virginia. On Tuesday, she is scheduled to visit Williamson — a town billed as “the heart of the billion-dollar coalfields” — to make the case for her presidency before the state’s May 10 primary. The last poll taken in West Virginia, in February, showed her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) up by almost 30 percentage points.
While there, Clinton is expected to tout the same plan that got her into rhetorical trouble two months ago — let the coal industry fizzle, and build something better from the ashes. For Appalachia, it can be considered a tough love plan — the cultural legacy of coal will die, but $30 billion will be invested into the promise of a new future: infrastructure improvements, health programs for former coal miners, mine land remediation, training and education programs, and incentives for business investment in the region.
“It’ll be interesting, to say the least,” said Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), which has been working for years to transition Appalachian communities from coal-based to clean energy economies. “I think she’s going to have a little bit of a rough time.”
According to Keating, hostility can be high among West Virginians when it comes to ending coal production — even though it’s been slowly happening for more than a decade. Because of the proliferation of natural gas across America, improvements in renewable energy, and increased pressure to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, coal use has fallen 29 percent in the United States since 2007.
“Change is hard for everyone and transition is hard for everyone, and I think it’s very difficult for anyone whose families for generations have worked for that sector,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is that there are numerous health studies that have shown that people’s heath is being really, really harmed by coal, from the cradle to grave, literally.”
Studies have indeed shown that people living near Kentucky and West Virginia coal mining areas have disproportionately high lung cancer and respiratory disease rates compared to other parts of the country. In the southern coal field areas of West Virginia, life expectancy rates are dismally low.
On Tuesday, Clinton is expected to tout her plan to transition West Virginia and Kentucky coal communities to clean energy economies — and she’s planning to tell it to their faces. Clinton has three events across the region on Tuesday, including one meeting with retired mine workers in the evening. On Wednesday, she is scheduled to give a speech on “jobs and the economy” in southeastern Ohio, home to many former coal mines.
How those events will go is anybody’s guess. But the choice of Williamson, West Virginia for her two evening events on Tuesday could be telling. The town of roughly 3,000 people has a rich history with coal — the local chamber of commerce headquarters is literally made out of coal — but in the past few years, efforts have been made to try and transition, at least somewhat, to a more diverse economy. In 2010, the town partnered with a local health and wellness center to form “Sustainable Williamson,” which works to promote healthy lifestyles and green technology. Since then, according to FastCoExist, the group has succeeded in installing solar panels on local businesses; establishing community gardens; and creating action plans to make town buildings more energy efficient.
It may make sense, then, that Clinton could use the town as an example — someplace where a future without coal is possible.
“There are some organizations across the state that have been pushing for economic transition and they’re actually doing it,” Keating said. “We’re not without hope here.”