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In the heart of coal country, EPA gets an earful about Clean Power Plan’s fate

Lindsay Pace, of Chattanooga, Tenn., testifies as retired coal miner and mine inspector Stanley Sturgill holds her son, Theo, during an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing Tuesday in Charleston, W. Va., on Tuesday. Both spoke against repealing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

This post has been updated.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Coal executive Robert Murray ambled through the packed hearing room inside the gold-domed capital complex here, past reporters and photographers, past environmental activists and energy lobbyists, past more than two dozen of his miners who had filled the seats, wearing their work uniforms and hard hats.

Like the roughly 300 other people signed up to speak about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to withdraw the Clean Power Plan — Barack Obama’s signature effort as president to combat climate change by limiting emissions from power plants — Murray got three minutes to make his case.

He used them to rail against the regulation and praise EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for vowing to scrap it. He called the Clean Power Plan the “linchpin” of the “war on coal.” He argued, as he has for years, that it would have killed more jobs in an industry that has been shedding jobs for years, mostly because of automation and the rise of natural gas. He said it was past time to bury the “illegal, excessive” Obama-era regulation.

“God bless President Trump and you coal miners. I love you fellas,” he said.

Minutes later, 72-year-old Stanley Sturgill, who mined coal for four decades in the hills of Kentucky, took the seat on the dais where Murray had spoken. He and his wife had risen before dawn and driven several hours from their home in Harlan County. He spoke of his own respiratory problems and how emissions from coal-fired power plants and other pollutants had wreaked havoc on the health of friends, family and neighbors.

“We need the EPA’s immediate help and not their abandonment,” Sturgill said. “Do I really think that this administration cares what this old, worn coal miner has to say? I don’t know. I doubt it.”

But Sturgill said as long as he could draw a breath, even a strained one, he intended to push the EPA to put concerns about public health above the wishes of the fossil fuel industry.

“Our health, environment and global climate are actively being destroyed. And it is clear to me that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and President Trump are accelerating and cheering on the damage,” he told EPA officials. “I have come here today to ask you to stop. For the sake of my grandchildren and yours, I call on you to strengthen, not repeal, the Clean Power Plan.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed that the U.S. has gained 50,000 new coal jobs since October. Fact Checker Glenn Kessler explains why this is misleading. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The opening hours of a two-day hearing here, with testimony spread across three separate hearing rooms simultaneously, encapsulated the controversy that has long engulfed the plan that Obama finalized in 2015 in an effort to slash greenhouse-gas emissions that scientists agree are fueling the planet’s warming.

Industry representatives, elected officials and workers who rely on the coal industry here excoriated it as a textbook example of government overreach that would cost jobs and harm families. To Pruitt’s proposal to ditch it, they had a simple message: Good riddance.

Yet environmental activists, public health groups and a collection of ordinary citizens defended the rule as an essential element in the fight to combat climate change, as well as a key measure to improve air quality and help the nation embrace cleaner forms of energy and the economic potential associated with that shift.

Bobby May, who traveled from Hurley, Va., with his brother, called the Clean Power Plan “all pain and no gain” for those who rely on the coal industry.

“We are survivors of the Obama administration’s war on coal,” said May, who described himself as the son and father of coal miners. “Coal puts food on the table for my family. It puts clothes on the back of my grandchildren.”

That wasn’t the perspective of Nick Mullins, a fifth-generation coal miner from Kentucky. He has no interest in his own son following in his footsteps.

“I don’t want him to be a sixth-generation coal miner,” Mullins testified, detailing the physical toll the work had taken on members of his family. He said he viewed the Clean Power Plan as a pathway to safer, more diversified job options for his children.

Back and forth it went. Kathy Beckett, a West Virginia lawyer and board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the Clean Power Plan “unlawful and a bad deal for America.” She argued it would drive up electricity rates and impose billions of dollars in compliance costs for companies “without any significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the plan’s benefits easily outweigh its costs. “The coal miners I talk to seem to know coal jobs will continue to dry up, with or without a Clean Power Plan,” she said.

She characterized the EPA’s decision to hold a lone hearing in Charleston as a “public spectacle.”

“We’ve been pitted against each other by being told we’ll either have coal, or we’ll have nothing,” Rosser said. “This administration seems to thrive on public anger and conflict. It’s a distraction. When people are fighting, they are not talking … The clock is ticking to do something different than leaning on a dying industry.”

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt joined more than two dozen other state attorneys general and an array of industry opponents in suing over the Clean Power Plan. They argued that the Obama administration did not have legal authority to force states to form detailed plans to reduce CO2 emissions from such sources as coal-fired power plants.

In turn, the Obama White House and environmental groups insisted the EPA had authority under the Clean Air Act to put such regulations in place and noted the Supreme Court has ruled the agency has an obligation to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s electricity sector by about a third by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.

The justices last year blocked the plan’s implementation until a lower court could rule on its legality. The Trump administration took office before the court issued a ruling.

The EPA officially proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan last month, with Pruitt saying that “we are committed to righting the wrongs of the Obama administration by cleaning the regulatory slate.” The  reversal is likely to trigger months, if not years, of litigation, but it is unlikely, according to many experts, to affect the nation’s overall shift from coal to natural gas and renewable power generation in the electricity sector.

While the Obama administration held numerous “listening sessions” and four public hearings around the country when it unveiled the plan, the Trump administration has scheduled only one public hearing to seek input on the regulation’s repeal: in this state capital on the banks of the Kanawha River, where a statue of a coal miner stands on the grounds outside the legislature.

West Virginia led a multistate fight against the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions. As a candidate, Donald Trump enjoyed a raucous reception in Charleston just after clinching the Republican nomination for president in May 2016. He donned a miner’s hat at the packed rally, pretended to shovel coal and vowed to put coal miners back to work — a promise that remains mostly unrealized. In the crowd that night, supporters waved signs reading, “Trump Digs Coal.”

In announcing the Charleston hearing, Pruitt said the agency was “headed to the heart of coal country to hear from those most impacted” by the Clean Power Plan. Critics quickly noted that emissions from power plants affect not just the coal industry but the health of Americans nationwide.

Scores of people filed into the trio of hearing rooms on Tuesday to implore the EPA to salvage the Clean Power Plan — or to scrap it. Some had registered ahead of time. Others just showed up and added their names to a growing list.

“This is about the kind of world we want to leave for our children, and we need to support a clean energy future,” said Liz Perrera, a climate policy director for the Sierra Club, who added that it is “the residents of this state who will miss out” if policymakers don’t encourage the shift away from coal.

The opposite message came from a staffer for Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va), who delivered a message from her boss calling the Clean Power Plan “an assault on our economy and our way of life.”

On it went, three minutes at a time.

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