John Denver wasn’t making things up when he began his song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (covered in Czech by Pavel Bobek as “Lead Me On, My Road”) with the words, “Almost heaven, West Virginia.” I get goosebumps just typing it.
West Virginia really is a slice of American heaven. It doesn’t get nearly as many travelers as the west, but you will find the wilderness there perhaps even more secluded. It’s not as gigantic as Arizona’s canyons or Colorado’s mountains, but it constantly evokes awe at a landscape jam-packed with unyielding nature all around.
It’s as if you took our Brdy range and expanded it to four-fifths the area of the Czech Republic, increased the height two- or threefold, wrinkled it a bit more, weaved in several Vltavas with the power that river has just before the confluence with the Elbe and added bears, rattlesnakes and poison ivy to the forests—then you’d have it, roughly. West Virginia, epicenter of the Appalachian Mountains, which stretch along America’s eastern coast from New England in the north to Georgia and Alabama in the south.
Mountains that, as it happens, are full of coal, the reason I’m writing about West Virginia now. Or more clearly stated, the reason I'm writing about it this week is Donald Trump’s address, in which the president tried to disguise himself as the world’s top ecologist and the greenest American president ever. Framing the speech as “America’s Environmental Leadership,” he expounded for nearly an hour on his administration’s environmental successes.
“We want the cleanest air. We want crystal-clean water, and that’s what we’re doing,” Trump pronounced, opining that his cabinet was working on it “harder than many previous administrations. Maybe almost all of them.”
Well, how should such a claim be confronted? I’ve already written in this column, “America’s Week,” that working with facts isn’t Trump’s strong suit. But I’ve also written that it’s fundamentally the business of American voters if that doesn’t bother them, because they have their own solid reasons for wanting him in the White House. But in this instance, that’s not entirely so – in this case, the president is lying to them at their risk.
It’s okay that Trump is making the policy he promised people. Good for business, for jobs in the manufacturing sector, for a “coal comeback,” as he promised in his election campaign, when he simultaneously declared that he would end Obama’s “war on coal.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that it has been competition from cheap natural gas, much more than Barack Obama’s measures, that has been putting downward pressure on demand for coal in the last 10 years. Leave aside the fact that coal extraction in the U.S. has steadily declined since the 1980s, since the Reagan administration when the sector employed almost 160,000, to just under 53,000 today.
And let’s leave aside the fact that, since Trump’s rise to power, the coal sector has added only 1,800 jobs, or 3.5%, which is not exactly a staggering “coal industry comeback” as Trump proclaims. That can all be subsumed under the category of nuanced political views and interpretations—if Trump created just one new job, then yes, even that is a comeback. But it’s something else when Trump speaks to his people like Big Brother from George Orwell’s “1984.”
No, Trump’s relaxing emissions limits for coal-fired power plants, his rollback of fuel standards for American automobiles and his more than 80 orders to date canceling previous environmental regulations will not make the air cleaner and will by no means make the water more crystal clean.
West Virginia is beautiful, but also, as can be seen on a drive through the valleys, full of scars from coal extraction. Not only from underground mining but also from the process, simpler for coal companies, of scalping a mountaintop and mining the coal in an open pit. The overburden, the soil and rock removed in the process, are then frequently dumped into valleys, often into streams, along with everything they contain, such as added chemicals and naturally occurring heavy metals.
It’s the source of a genuine, serious environmental problem, often with real impact on the health of those very people who dig for coal. According to an EPA study from a couple of years ago, 2,000 miles of flowing water in the Appalachians’ central coal region have been polluted and ruined in this manner. For comparison, that’s roughly the length of the entire Mississippi.
In its last year, in autumn 2016, the Obama administration enacted a measure restricting conditions for mountaintop removal mining, in particular laying down clear rules for handling overburden so that it no longer finds its way into streams. It had to be kept at least 100 feet from water.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the measure meant the protection of 6,000 miles of streams from possible pollution, and the independent Congressional Research Service reported that it would reduce “human exposure to contaminants in drinking water and probability of adverse health effects.” According to federal government statistics, West Virginia today has the second-shortest average life expectancy after Mississippi, and it’s the absolute worst in the U.S. in the number of deaths from drug overdoses and opiates (which often begin with dependency on pain killers). It ranks among the top in many other indicators, such as diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory illness.
At the same time, the CRS calculated the impact of Obama’s measure on coal companies and found that a ton of coal would cost them $0.40 more. Overall, they would have to reckon with a 5% drop in profits in the first few years after the measure’s introduction, which is palpable. Nonetheless, it would result in practically no loss of employment; for instance, in the entire Appalachian coal region fewer than 600 jobs would be affected, since people would transition from mining to soil restoration.
But this measure was precisely one of the first to be repealed by the Republican-controlled Congress following Trump’s ascent to the White House, with the freshly elected American president joyfully signing the new bill into law in mid-February 2017. The old regulation, in Trump’s opinion, as one can read in a White House proclamation, would have “reduce[d] coal production, leading to fewer coal jobs across the country.”
“Almost heaven, West Virginia.” People there have their fate in their own hands. Trump won 68% of the vote there in 2016, the second strongest support of any U.S. state after Wyoming. But even so, West Virginians shouldn’t let themselves be brazenly deceived by their own president.
“From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet,” their president has declared. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. And Trump is an ecologist.