How the coal industry took over West Virginia

While residents wonder if their water will ever be safe, the coal lobby continues to call the shots

Published March 31, 2014 9:48PM (EDT)

Back in West Virginia, people still aren't sure whether or not their drinking water is safe. But the seemingly infallible coal lobby is still going strong, according to The New Yorker's Evan Osnos. Osnos puts the state's massive chemical spill, including the lack of regulations leading up to it and the confusion left in its aftermath, into the context of West Virginia's political history, one which, in his characterization, shifted radically to the right under the careful guidance of Big Coal.

Four-fifths of the coal mining jobs that abounded in West Virginia way back in 1948 -- one hundred and twenty-six thousand of them -- were gone by 2011. And yet “by harnessing the most powerful technologies of political influence—campaign finance, public relations, politicized research—West Virginia’s coal industry has recast an economic debate as a culture debate: a yes-or-no question, all or nothing,” Osnos writes. “Viewed in that light, a vote for the industry is a vote for yourself, your identity, your survival.”

In one of the article's more astounding moments, Rupert Phillips, Jr., a Democrat and a member of the state legislature's "Coal Caucus" (his license plate read COALDEL, for “coal delegate”) brings his coal industry lobbyist along for his interview.

Here, according to Osnos, is how government works in West Virginia:

The Democrat John Unger, a pastor and former Rhodes Scholar who serves as the majority leader in the state Senate, told me that he has identified three steps by which lobbyists win the cooperation of his peers. “First, they try to wine and dine you. Then they try to set you up. And then they try to threaten you.”

Set you up? I asked.

“Set you up in the sense of getting something on you so that you become beholden to them,” he said. “Back when I was a freshman, I stayed at the Marriott during the legislative session. And they would send people up to your room and knock on the door.” He continued, “When I looked out the peephole and saw who it was, I’d call down to security and say, ‘Someone’s lost, they’re knocking on my door.’ Then I moved out.”

Unger recalled the first time that a lobbyist for a chemical company asked him to vote on a bill. “I said, ‘I don’t sign on to anything until I read it.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s not the way it works around here.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how it works down here, but that’s the way I work.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t learn to get along, when it comes to your reëlection, we’ll stick a fork in you.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Sir, with no due disrespect to you, but you weren’t for me when I got elected, and I got elected!’ ”

For those who are uncooperative, the results can be swift. In 2012, a coal-industry lobbyist asked Larry Barker, who was the chair of the House Energy, Industry, and Labor Committee, to advance an industry-backed bill out of his committee. Barker declined, and the meeting adjourned. Afterward, Barker told me, a lobbyist “walks over and crowded me with his shoulder, kind of back to the corner, where there was nobody there but me and him. And I’m looking up at him, and I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘What’s it going to take for you to run our bill?’ And I said, ‘I want to look it over. I want to let the attorney look at it, I want the union to look it over.’ He said, ‘This is the last meeting. You can call a special meeting and put this bill on there.’ And I said, ‘Well, now, why do you think I would do that?’ He said, ‘Because we want it.’ We, meaning the coal industry. ‘We want it. Period.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve reached a deadline. If I’m still here next year in this same position, if this is a good bill, I promise you I’ll run it in the first meeting next year.’ He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘That will be too late for you.’ And he turned and walked out, and I never heard from anybody else in the coal companies after that.” That fall, a first-time candidate backed by the coal industry challenged Barker and defeated him.

The entire piece may not be the definitive word on West Virginia -- where it could be decades before we understand the full implications of the spill -- but it's a strong and comprehensive take on the still-unfolding situation. Read it here.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coal Industry Freedom Industries Lobbyists West Virginia Chemical Spill