By MANNIX PORTERFIELD
for the Daily Telegraph
Political and industry leaders insisted Thursday the war on coal isn’t “an optical illusion,” telling the Environmental Administration Agency’s new director it is, in fact, a grim reality that is idling miners and spreading fear across West Virginia’s coal belt.
An entourage led by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin met for about 45 minutes with Gina McCarthy, and invited her to see for herself the adverse impact the EPA is wreaking on coal production.
There was no immediate reply from her, but if she does come, state Democratic Chairman Larry Puccio pledged that the environmental community would be included in any such tour, telling reporters in a conference call, “We encourage everyone to be heard. They should have a voice like anyone should have a voice.”
Tomblin pointed out that 24,000 people work directly in coal and thousands others are on payrolls of support industries, such as rail, barge and electric transmission.
“I took the opportunity to tell her that West Virginians will not stop talking about our jobs and will not stop fighting for coal,” the governor said.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and others said McCarthy appeared genuinely interested in the concerns of the delegation, judging by the fact she took extensive notes and asked questions.
“You could tell by her eyes she was really listening,” he said.
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, likewise came away encouraged by the one-on-one meeting with the EPA administrator.
“I really think we’re going to have the opportunity to hit the reset button and begin a dialogue,” the speaker said.
In his remarks to her, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the EPA’s policies, under Lisa Jackson, “make no sense whatsoever” when coal is fueling nearly half of the nation’s energy supply.
“The war on coal is not an optical illusion,” the senator said.
“It’s real. And it’s not just the war in West Virginia, or the war in this country, but it’s a war around the world that this administration is waging.”
Manchin and others spoke confidently that McCarthy would take them up on an invitation to tour coal sites in the state and said the group left a visible impression on her.
“They might have thought we were going to come and have a dog and pony show,” he said.
“And that wasn’t it at all. Everybody came with specifics of what you’ve done to us.”
Manchin said he reminded the EPA of how it initially approved the Spruce mining permit and then yanked it a decade later.
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, called the session “positive” and said he hopes it will lead to “a new line of communications” with the agency.
“I’m very mindful to the extent I do have a little bit of apprehension going forward because there’s been a lot of damage done to the state of West Virginia,” he said.
Ever since the EPA launched its crusade against coal, he said, some 3,500 miners and 1,000 power plant workers have been laid off.
“I’m very concerned over the closure of coal-fired power plants,” Hamilton said.
“They can’t be restarted immediately. They can’t be reversed in a couple of months.”
McCarthy demonstrated a willingness to listen to the West Virginians’ concern over the EPA’s policy on clean and water regulations, said Bill Banig, director of governmental affairs for the United Mine Workers of America.
“She gave us an open door today and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to keep walking through that door, not just today, but tomorrow, next week, next month and the months ahead,” Banig said.
While he originally was invited, Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts passed up a seat on the bus, saying he applauded the mission but suggested it would be better for President Obama’s hires to hear from fellow Democrats who endorsed him in two elections.
“There is some consolation in knowing our Democratic leaders are finally reminding the president of the needs of fellow West Virginians,” Roberts said.
“Perhaps those who have supported his platform in the past can change his mind. Democratic Party leaders are much more likely to get his attention than those who opposed his policies.”
Republican lawmakers were snubbed, and the guest list also failed to include any Democratic leaders who represent the southern coal belt.
Puccio acknowledged that “many” southern lawmakers wanted to make the trip but said they were represented by Miley.
“We had limited seating,” the Democratic chairman said.
“We were restricted on how many seats we could put in.”
Puccio’s predecessor, Nick Casey, who is running for Congress in the 2nd District, told reporters President Obama ran on a campaign of “hope,” but suggested this has flickered in the war on coal.
“That’s not hope that’s been given to the people of West Virginia,” the Charleston attorney said.
“I really think it’s caused despair. I think the people of West Virginia have felt abandoned by this president. He’s decided they’re not worth worrying about.”
For now, however, the West Virginians left the nation’s capital with some measure of hope, at least, with a feeling that McCarthy is willing to hear them out, Miley said.
“She wasn’t just paying lip service by being there,” the speaker said.
“She took a large number of handwritten notes and questioned things that people said. She wasn’t just a potted plant, rolling her eyes, paying us lip service.”