Community advocates and the United Mine Workers union are questioning why the West Virginia Legislature killed an amendment on the last day of the 2021 legislative session Saturday night that would have set up a comeback plan for the many communities throughout the state devastated by coal mine and plant closures.
“[T]his would have been a good idea,” said Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development, a Wayne County-based nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding the central Appalachian economy.
The amendment, introduced by Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, and advanced by the House of Delegates in a 49-48 vote Friday, would have directed the West Virginia Public Service Commission to facilitate creating a plan mandated to include development of water, wastewater, broadband and other infrastructure needed to revitalize communities affected by coal-fired plant closures. The plan also would have aimed to create opportunities to increase jobs in coal and other industries.
But Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 542, the bill to which the amendment was attached requiring coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities to keep at least 30 days of coal supply, said on the Senate floor Saturday the amendment was a “poison pill.” Then, the Senate said no to the amendment with a 21-13 vote. The House of Delegates agreed to scrap the amendment in a 70-30 vote, and then voted 89-11 to pass the bill without the amendment.
“Why does it need to be in there?” Phillips objected on the Senate floor Saturday.
The mine workers union answered Phillips’ question Monday.
“[I]t is past time for the state to recognize that there are thousands of West Virginia coal miners who have already lost their jobs,” Phil Smith, the UMW’s director of communications and governmental affairs, said. “The impact on them, their families and their communities has been and continues to be devastating. We supported the amendments to the bill and were disappointed to see the Senate strip them out. In the absence of state support for these dislocated miners and their communities, we continue to work with members of Congress on a bipartisan basis to bring real economic solutions to these communities.”
Phillips could not be reached for comment.
West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton has a more sympathetic view of how the amendment died.
“Any time you amend the bill in the 11th hour, it could potentially jeopardize the bill from passing,” Hamilton said. “There was a lot of compromises and agreements by all the parties not to advance additional amendments.”
Hamilton said the amendment was well-meaning and hopes it can be revisited during the interim committee process, when legislators study issues and look ahead to the next regular session.
Evans’ amendment would have created an advisory committee to develop and recommend a plan for coal communities co-chaired by the head of the Public Service Commission or its designee and the Department of Economic Development secretary or its designee. The committee would have been required to meet at least once every three months and hold at least three public hearings on plan for coal communities, with at least one hearing held in each of the state’s congressional districts.
By July 1, 2022, the committee would have had to present a draft plan to the Public Service Commission’s leader and a final plan to the governor and the Legislature by the end of 2022.
The bill that survived, SB 542, had already been gutted.
The original version of SB 542 would have made further-reaching reforms to keep West Virginia’s dwindling fleet of coal plants operating as long as possible. Those reforms included requiring in-state power producers to maintain 2019 coal consumption levels, and file compliance plans every three years with the long-dormant state Public Energy Authority specifying how 2019 coal consumption levels would be maintained.
Hamilton hailed SB 542 as “landmark and precedent-setting” legislation, even though it was stripped down from its original version.
“It provides a bridge to the future as we all work to diversify our economy and also begin looking at the next generation of electric-generating facilities in the state of West Virginia,” Hamilton said.
The bill’s remaining requirement for coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities to keep at least 30 days of coal supply under contract is something utility representatives testified they already do.
The initial version of the bill also required utilities to keep a 90-day coal supply under contract. But the required supply was shortened to come closer to what representatives from Appalachian Power, FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy said they currently keep under contract.
Opponents of the bill see it as a short-sighted nod to an industry they have seen enough job losses from to conclude the state can’t rely on anymore at the expense of the communities still hurting from those losses.
“Sadly, many legislators work for special interests more than for the people,” Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Executive Director Vivian Stockman said. “They continue to position themselves as ‘Friends of Coal.’ Sure, they are friends of a toxic lump of rock, but apparently, they are not friends of coal workers and the communities that so desperately need more livelihood options.”
Ensuring more livelihood options has been the goal of the Just Transition Fund, a national philanthropic initiative providing grants and direct transition funding and support to communities looking to transition amid the changing coal economy.
“We know from experience that legislation like the Coal Community Comeback Plan provides support that helps that planning process be more successful and inclusive by starting planning even before closures happen and including local workers and the people most affected by the changing economy as critical stakeholders,” Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, said Monday. “Those elements have proven to be essential to the success of planning for an economic transition that doesn’t leave anyone behind.”
Dennison said his organization, which celebrated creating more than 250 new jobs and training more than 1,200 people upon its 10th anniversary last year, needs support from decision-makers in West Virginia.
“We need our leaders to get more forward thinking and proactive when it comes to diversifying our economy and creating new jobs,” Dennison said. “As the coal industry continues its rapid decline, the pain and suffering in coal communities just keeps deepening and intensifying. Yet some seem to remain in a state of denial about the coal industry’s fortunes.”
Dennison saw the coal community comeback plan as proactive problem-solving. The plan itself will need another comeback if it’s ever to come to fruition someday, he said.
“This was one small idea, and we need thousands more,” he said. “But at least it was a forward-looking idea.”