Appalachians don’t take kindly to outsiders telling them what to do. Who could blame them? For more than a century, the nation grew rapidly on their coal. Then they were left behind with scarred land, absentee landlords and high poverty rates. As countries and companies around the world pledge to reduce carbon emissions, coal is now a liability. And yet, like a hostage with Stockholm syndrome, many remain faithful to coal. Regulators in West Virginia just opted to make expensive upgrades to three coal-fired power plants rather than shut them down.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Appalachia could be a center of clean manufacturing, electric cars and tourism based on the region’s stunning natural beauty. Don’t take my word for it. Read the economic blueprint developed by Reimagine Appalachia, a small but growing group of people from policy, labor, faith, environmental and racial justice communities who are lobbying for a massive federal investment to create a 21st-century economy in the Ohio River Valley, which runs, in part, through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.
“Part of our reason for being is that conversations have largely been driven by people on the East and West Coasts, even though there are significant implications for the people for Appalachia,” said Amanda Woodrum, a co-director of Reimagine Appalachia. “We have to be at the table, or else we will be on the menu.”
Eight mayors — including those of Pittsburgh; Louisville, Ky.; and Columbus, Ohio — backed the group’s effort in The Washington Post. We need a “Marshall Plan for Middle America,” they wrote. One of the first real flickers of hope for getting anything close came from the Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda, which included proposals that echoed many of Reimagine Appalachia’s.
Organizers see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the federal investment that the region needs. There’s only one problem: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — a conservative Democrat with a crucial swing vote.
Mr. Manchin, who has insisted that the Biden administration scale back its spending, has earned the ire of every progressive in America. One frustrated Senate staff member told me that if Mr. Manchin demanded funding to employ every single unemployed worker in West Virginia, he’d probably get it. Instead, he is getting a reputation as a coal-coddling obstructionist who votes against the interests of his own people. But organizers with Reimagine Appalachia don’t have the luxury of writing off Mr. Manchin. They meet with him regularly, hoping to get him to endorse as many pieces of their plan as they can.
“He does sit down and listen to everyone,” said Renate Pore, a onetime Democratic candidate for West Virginia’s House of Delegates who has known Mr. Manchin for decades. “Sometimes he votes the right way.”
She said he hails from a large Italian family that was known for helping neighbors.
“He has a good heart, but he doesn’t believe that policy can make a dramatic improvement in people’s lives, unless it’s business and facilitating business growth,” Ms. Pore told me. “He likes to talk about his great family, their compassion and generosity. But he has also imbibed the conservative worldview that low-income people are irresponsible and not deserving.”
Mr. Manchin has passionately championed some parts of the Reimagine Appalachia plan — like expanding rural broadband, which is included in an infrastructure package that has bipartisan support. But his insistence that the Build Back Better reconciliation bill shrink from $3.5 trillion over 10 years to less than $2 trillion leaves a question mark over other crucial parts of the plan.
Reimagine organizers envision a climate corps that could give hope to people who’ve been caught up in the opioid epidemic by hiring them to restore wetlands and put the tops back on the mountains. Build Back Better initially also championed a climate corps, but no one knows if it will make it into the final bill.
Mr. Manchin has also fought for federal funding to hire local people to cap abandoned mines and wells and to remediate brownfields and for federal money tied to clean manufacturing to be funneled to coal-producing counties — a funding formula that doesn’t seem to have been adopted. On that issue, Mr. Manchin and the Reimagine organizers are fighting on the same side.
“If we are able to direct clean manufacturing jobs anywhere in the nation, it should be Appalachia,” Angie Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers, told me.
She described Mr. Manchin as a complex figure who recognizes the need for coal country to change, even as he obstructs the Biden administration’s efforts to bring change.
“I have heard from Manchin that the energy transition is underway, that climate change is real, we need to deal with it,” she said.
The most charitable thing one can say about Mr. Manchin’s position is that he has no sense of urgency. By the time West Virginia’s leaders are ready to make the switch, this opportunity for a Marshall Plan for Appalachia may have passed.
Mr. Manchin has raked in money from the coal industry, both from political donations and from his stocks in a coal brokerage firm he founded and his son now controls. This has led many people to assume that he’s voting with his wallet. But Sean O’Leary, an energy policy analyst from Wheeling, W.Va., said the problem goes deeper than that. Although coal production has plummeted to roughly half of what it was a decade ago, it still has a stranglehold on the region’s culture and identity.
“Growing up in West Virginia, at the halftime of football games, there was a regular feature: a choir singing ‘Coal Is West Virginia,’” Mr. O’Leary told me. “The prevailing belief is that jobs and economic development have to be around coal.”
Appalachia, once a Democratic stronghold, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump after he promised to bring back coal.
Mr. O’Leary has been sharing the success story of Centralia, a coal town in Washington State where a coal mine closed and the town’s coal-fired power plant is in the process of being retired. The company that owns the mine and the power plant funded grants to workers, families, local businesses, nonprofits and local governments to foster clean energy development, energy efficiency and education. The results? Jobs in Centralia have grown at twice the rate of the nation.
Mr. O’Leary told me that officials in Appalachia are receptive — as long as he doesn’t get into politics or come across as a mortal enemy of coal.
“I’m not here to talk to you about pro-coal or anti-coal,” he tells local officials. “I’m here to say your county is getting a bad deal and you can do better.”
The Biden administration is offering a deal that might not come again. Will Joe Manchin really turn it down?