Citizens call for diversification in the coalfields - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Citizens call for diversification in the coalfields

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Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival is not known for conventional political action, but one RAMPS activist said the governor's office left members little choice.

In a demonstration Wednesday morning, several groups concerned about economic diversification in the coalfields of West Virginia met on the governor's lawn to hand deliver a letter critical of his administration and campaign. The letter called for a nonpartisan citizens advisory council on economic diversification to look at replacements for a coal industry that has been on the decline.

Matthew Louis Rosenberg, an activist with RAMPS, said the group tried to arrange a meeting to speak with the governor. After weeks of being told there wasn't time, they attempted to hand deliver the letter Wednesday morning.

"Governor, you are asking us for another 4 years.  We are asking you, 'What's your plan?' because we haven't heard one that addresses the economic and health crisis in our communities," the letter states.

The group also attracted the attention of a group with far less "radical" reputation.

"This is the most important question facing us now – how are we going to diversify the economy? When can we stop screaming ‘war on coal,' ‘no war on coal,' and start planning?" asked Becky Park, founder of The Little Old Ladies Who Love Our Land, a group that has been trying to talk issues with state leaders and candidates for office.

Dustin Still, a lifelong resident of Mingo County, started working with RAMPS to increase economic diversification four years ago.

"This decline is making really tangible pain for people in our area. … We in Central Appalachia and us in the southern West Virginia coalfields has put West Virginia and this country on its back for 125 years. We're looking for retribution and a plan for when this monolithic industry goes. What is the plan to make sure that Mingo County, Logan County, Raleigh County, the places we live and call home, doesn't look like Welch?"

The group says aggressive rhetoric used by coal proponents is dividing the public and preventing a conversation about real solutions. In an Associated Press article last week, writer Vicki Smith called the war on coal " a sound bite and headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides."

Factors affecting the industry in West Virginia include geologic challenges, cheap natural gas and national policy that does not favor the pollutants associated with coal production and burning.

"In reality, we are running out of coal to mine and other coal basins and cheap natural gas are simply out-competing Central Appalachian coal," the letter states. "Even Bill Raney has admitted, ‘There's not any surprise in this. You're talking about a declining reserve anyway. We mined the low-hanging fruit a long time ago.'"

The quote from Raney was taken from a Charleston Gazette article published this month and is consistent with other statements from Raney.

The consequences of not diversifying the economy, the group wrote, is plain in the many towns and communities already affected by coal's boom and bust economic cycle.

"We have seen the future of communities where coal companies pull out without a plan for transition," the letter states. "You only need to visit Welch to understand what the future looks like if we don't act."

Dustin White, a Boone county native, said he is concerned about the southern coalfields. He said the conversation about diversification needs to begin soon because the problem is likely to be complicated.

When asked about what could replace coal, White said he wasn't sure what might replace coal.

"We have out our lives on the line for this nation to keep the light bulb on for over 150 years," White said. "We've paid our debt to the nation and we deserve better as West Virginians. We deserve better lives."

Rosenberg, said the solution is going to have a lot of different answers.

"There's not going to be one single answer for what replaces coal. That's why we say diversify the economy," Rosenberg said. "We need a lot of different answers."

Regardless of whether or not environmental movement efforts are successful, Rosenberg said, change is coming. The kind of change, he said, depends on how state leaders react.

"Is the future going to look like Welch? Is the future going to look like McDowell? Or is the future going to look like something better than that? That's the choice that's facing us," Rosenberg said.

Tomblin's office did not respond for comment, but a representative of his office did receive the letter and told the group it would be delivered.