Freddie Newberry, left, Ethan Childress, and Jessie Yates stand outside… (Ryan Stone/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
COEBURN, Va. — Wearing helmets, headlamps and uniforms streaked with grime, the workers at Paramont Coal sound weary of fighting. They are in the middle of what they call a long-running “war on coal” that is threatening their livelihood and stoking fury directed at the federal government.
“When the president said that you can build a coal plant, but it’ll bankrupt you — he did a good job,” said Jack Blanton, 59, a supervisor at the Toms Creek plant, referring to remarks Barack Obama made as a candidate.
There is more than coal burning in America’s coal fields these days, and that anger could have an effect on November’s elections in coal-producing swing states such as Virginia. As coal companies idle mines and lay off workers, energy policy has become a hot topic in the U.S. Senate race between former governors Timothy M. Kaine (D) and George Allen (R).
On a campaign swing through southwest Virginia last month, Allen tried to capitalize on the resentment against Washington. He blamed the Obama administration for a growing number of mine closures and layoffs, and highlighted Kaine’s support for the cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gases, which scientists say have contributed to global warming. Allen also reminded listeners of Kaine’s close ties to the president as he argued that the Environmental Protection Agency has been using regulations to try to accomplish what the Obama administration failed to enact through Congress.
“These EPA regulations are, in effect, banning coal,” Allen told workers at a Tazewell County firm that manufactures electronic equipment used in mining.
But Kaine fired back this month with a TV ad showing him in a helicopter circling above the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a new coal-fired power plant in Wise County. As governor, Kaine endorsed the Dominion-owned plant and cites it as proof of his support for using “clean” coal to meet America’s power needs.
On the campaign trail, Kaine also boasts of having adopted the state’s first comprehensive energy plan, which sought to achieve a balance between coal, nuclear, natural gas, wind and biofuels. He reminds people that as governor, he kept an open mind on the possibility of drilling for oil off Virginia’s shore.
Kaine said he understands the historical importance of coal and its future potential as technology reduces its impact on the planet. But he is also a believer in green energy that can produce jobs such as those at a General Electric plant in Salem where 700 workers build components for wind turbines and solar arrays.
“A third of new power in this country since 2007 that’s come online has been wind power,” Kaine said during a visit to Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival this month.
Kaine also argues that, unlike Allen, he thinks the United States must cut carbon emissions and promote renewable energy. Kaine said that Allen can’t see beyond fossil fuels.
“My opponent will battle tooth and nail . . . to fight for subsidies for big oil companies and ridicule wind and solar,” Kaine said.
Coal country is increasingly Republican, and the mining industry’s recent skid is likely to make Democrats’ problems worse. Anger over cap-and-trade helped drive Rep. Rick Boucher (D) from office in the 9th District in 2010 after 14 terms. Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R), a former delegate in the Virginia General Assembly who beat Boucher, seldom misses a chance to blame the region’s woes on the EPA.
“The story here is coal,” said state Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell County), who admits the regulatory and economic climate has made life tricky for his party. But Puckett said Kaine also has performed better than most Democrats in southwest Virginia.
There are also political crosscurrents. Generations of people, particularly in the mines, were raised in union families and taught that Democrats understand the concerns of working people.
Kaine also has long-standing ties to the area through his wife, Ann Holton, who was born in Roanoke and spent summers with grandparents in Big Stone Gap. As mayor of Richmond, Kaine worked with others in southwest Virginia on various initiatives. As governor, he made a point of visiting often.
The seven coal-producing counties of Virginia’s southwest taper into a sharp point stabbing at the blue-tinged mountains and valleys of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. When coal was king, the mines and towns thrived, and many working-class families made a decent, if dangerous, living.