As Obama visits coal country, many are wary of his environmental policies

By David A. Fahrenthold and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

BECKLEY, W.VA. -- Coal has helped divide Barack Obama from the people of this heavily Democratic state. On Sunday, it will bring the president and West Virginians together, at least briefly.

Obama will speak at a memorial for 29 miners killed April 5 in an underground explosion. The trip brings him to the heart of a state whose voters rejected him twice in 2008. Even some Democratic politicians worry that his environmental policies are hurting a struggling region.

Obama's political rise, first as a senator from a coal-producing state and then as leader of a party with deep roots in Appalachia, has coincided with coal's emergence as an environmental boogeyman. Old gaps between Democrats in West Virginia and those in Washington, between miners and environmentalists, widened just as he sought to straddle them.

As president, Obama has devoted billions to developing technology aimed at reducing coal's greenhouse-gas emissions, often referred to as "clean coal," which the industry also supports. Despite that, many here focus on his policies on climate change and "mountaintop removal" mining, believing they unfairly target the industry.

On Sunday, in this little city chiseled into valleys and hilltops, Obama will convey the country's grief and its resolve to prevent future mining accidents, aides say. For once, everyone associated with West Virginia's most contentious and necessary rock might concur.

John D. Humphrey, a Democratic county commissioner here in Raleigh County, said he couldn't recall a president as unpopular in southern West Virginia -- and he himself sees signs of a "war on coal" in Washington. But he said, "Even what I guess you'd call the anti-Obama people . . . they feel good that he's coming to the county."

A few miles from the arena that will host the service, Humphrey sells hot tubs in a showroom decorated with a moose head, a stuffed tom turkey, and two bears frozen in mid-snarl. "I've had hope all along for him, I really have," he said of the president.

Obama has responded to the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine, the worst U.S. mining accident since 1970, with sharp criticism of both the mine's owner, Richmond-based Massey Energy, and the federal regulators who watched over it.

"This tragedy was triggered by . . . a failure first and foremost of management," Obama said, "but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue."

Aides said there had been little doubt Obama would attend Sunday's memorial service. Vice President Biden will join him.

"Any loss of life is tragic, but this is an enormous tragedy and loss for the people of southern West Virginia, and he wants very much for the people of West Virginia to know that the country mourns with them," said a senior aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president's thinking on a sensitive subject. "Being from a coal state, he understands how a tragedy like this one deeply affects a close-knit coal community and is felt throughout the state."

The visit brings Obama to a touchy place politically. In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton resoundingly beat him here in the Democratic primary and Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) beat him by 13 percentage points in the general election. The southern counties of West Virginia are at one end of the "McCain Belt," a swath of the Appalachians and upper South that went more heavily Republican in 2008 than in 2004.

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