By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
People who label such things, are calling the nation’s still-struggling recovery, the Great Recession. West Virginia’s economy was spared the depth of the initial dip because of stable foreign markets for the state’s metallurgical coal. That business has fallen off, and the path to recovery there is not clear.
“We have been able to attract over $5 billion in investments in the state that are bringing new jobs,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during a meeting with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph editorial board. Tomblin said companies including Gestamp, Macy’s and Amazon have brought jobs into the state. “We continue to be able to attract jobs into the state,” he said.
Tomblin said the coal industry’s challenges with the Environmental Protection Agency’s permitting process continue, but added that a warm winter and global economic stagnation has amplified the challenges coal faces. “We’ll continue to fight them,” he said of the EPA, and added that “the coal industry is cyclical,” and people connected with the industry have survived challenges through the years.
Tomblin said that he has a 38-year record of supporting the coal industry. “I don’t think there has ever been a question about my support for the coal industry,” he said adding that he has received the support of both the West Virginia Coal Association as well as the United Mine Workers of America.
He said that his opposition to the efforts of the EPA to restrict coal mining permits has been unchanging, and he added that the state authorities can do a better job of issuing coal mining permits and monitoring them.
In response to a question as to his support for president in the upcoming presidential election, Tomblin said: “I have differences with President Obama and the EPA,” he said. “I’ve got differences with Gov. Romney. I’m not enthralled with either one.”
Tomblin said that the future for metallurgical coal is much greater than the future for thermal coal. “I just wish the federal government would adopt a national energy policy,” he said, adding that with coal is a component of a national energy policy, “we can become energy independent,” he said.
Along with the 38-year commitment to the coal industry that he mentioned, Tomblin said that he also supports more reliance on the state’s natural gas reserves. He said the state is in the process of converting a portion of its fleet to operate on natural gas, and that he is in favor of more research into converting coal to liquid.
“It’s my obligation as governor to stand up and say it,” Tomblin said. “We have an abundance of coal in this state and we know how to get it.” Tomblin said that with the state’s coal and natural gas reserves as well as the state’s position in the heart of the emerging Marcellus shale fields, West Virginia should play a prominent role in any national energy policy.
Tomblin said highway projects like the King Coal Highway and Coalfield Expressway “should be priorities” for completion. Tomblin said that the state has to work in concert with representatives in Congress to complete highway projects in the region. “We have to take the lead on how we are going to maintain them,” he said.
In response to a question concerning the lack of economic growth in Mercer County, Tomblin said that the Mercer County Economic Development Authority and the local chambers of commerce “know what you have available,” he said. “We need to be working together,” he said. Still he added that with the railroad in Mercer County, the region has an asset that could be attractive to industrial growth.
Tomblin said that the state adopted a regional jail system because there were 55 county jails in the state and counties couldn’t afford to make them comply with the regulations. He said he had heard some of the complaints that counties have voiced about the system. “There are ways we can look at it to reduce that burden on the counties,” he said. He also said that he hopes that the state doesn’t have to build a new prison.
Along with providing prisons, Tomblin said that drugs are at the root of many crimes in the state. He said that the state is seeing a reduction in the abuse of some drugs, but acknowledged “we’ve got to do a better job.”
Tomblin said that the Reconnecting McDowell project has the potential to make a great deal of difference in McDowell County. He said that part of the project will provide access to broadband communications to every household in the county by the end of the year. He added that Reconnecting McDowell is addressing the need for additional housing as well. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.
On a question about the practice of mandatory drug testing, Tomblin said that he pushed for drug testing to be part of the Coal Mine Safety Bill. “One of the reasons I pushed for that was because they’re already doing it in Kentucky and Virginia,” he said. Tomblin said that without drug testing as part of the mine safety bill, a coal miner who was fired due to drug use in Kentucky or Virginia could come to West Virginia and start working. He said that the Mine Safety Bill removed that possibility.
“The trades (unions) in Charleston have had drug testing in place for 10-12 years,” he said.
On a local issue, Tomblin said he has asked Paul Mattox, secretary of the Department of Transportation to work with officials in Princeton to reduce the problem of flooding on Stafford Drive. “I’m aware of the problem and we’ll work on it,” he said.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org