Obama's 'Clean Coal' Fighting Words To W.Va. Dems

Jul 2, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 10:34 am

Mingo County, deep in the southwest corner of West Virginia, has sent a "protest vote" to the attention of President Obama. In the May 8 Democratic primary, voters chose a man named Keith Judd to run for president. He got 61 percent of the vote.

Judd won't be available. He's serving a 17-year sentence for extortion. From prison in Texas, he managed to file the papers, pay the fee and get on the West Virginia ballot.

Obama did win statewide, but Judd beat him in the coal mining region, where many believe the president is waging a "War on Coal."

In West Virginia, residents vote the way they want to vote: Republicans have won the state in the last three presidential elections. But the governor (Earl Ray Tomblin) and both U.S. senators (Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin) are Democrats.

But still, how could a president running in his party's primary lose 10 counties to a guy in prison?

The Answer: Coal

The overwhelming issue in Mingo County is the future of coal mining. You will hear, see and read talk about "Obama's War On Coal," people blaming the White House for mines shut down, coal-burning power plants shut down and jobs gone.

Leigh Ann Wells, who works for the Mingo County Commission, says she voted for Judd over Obama in the Democratic primary without knowing anything about Judd. When she arrived at home that night, the election results were on television.

"My husband was sitting on the couch and he said, 'You know that Judd guy who was on the ticket against Obama?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'He's a felon in Texas. He's in jail,' " says Wells, laughing.

I talked with lots of people like Wells who would have tapped the voting screen for Judd even if they did know he was in prison — even if it meant the TV talk shows would make fun of West Virginia.

"It was a little bit embarrassing, and I don't care," says Wells. "It was more so a stance against ... Obama and his coal policies and just the fact that here in West Virginia people feel like he doesn't even know we exist."

The White House would say there's a push for coal, not a war against it.

In his State of the Union address last year, Obama talked about energy sources, including natural gas and clean coal. "We will need them all," the president said, promising more investment in coal technology.

So maybe not a war — but there is a battle coming. And it's over the word "clean" in front of the word "coal."

The Culture Of Coal

When you drive into Mingo County and first get out of the car, you'll smell coal in the air. After a day or so, you won't notice it.

By the second night, you'll sleep without hearing the coal trains. But you always seem to be aware of the mountains, the hills, which are close in and all around.

"These very rugged mountains have isolated us," says Bill Richardson, a historian and Mingo County native. "It even shaped the accent, because the old English accents didn't get blended away. It made people very clannish. They knew when there was a stranger in town because people didn't come here. It also made people very rugged and self-reliant. And still today, you see that people here don't want to be told what to do."

About 27,000 people live in Mingo County, where the median household income is $32,902 a year, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The county occupies 423 square miles.

"Go out to Dingess," people said, "if you really want to see Mingo County." I drove way back in the country heading through an old railroad tunnel, almost a mile long, built for a rail line to carry lumber and people.

The community called Dingess is a road through a winding, narrow valley, small houses along each side. The people who live here come from people who always lived here. To them, the coal trucks speeding by can be a friendly sound.

"That'n that was in prison? Against Obama? That's the one I voted for," says Wade Marcum, a retired coal miner.

Marcum and his wife, Madge, say they worry about their retirement and jobs for their family and neighbors.

"The coal miners and that, they're upset over it 'cause [Obama's] not for coal, and that's what these people do, you know. That's all they know," says Madge.

Farther along the Dingess Road in another front yard, I meet Sammy Vance.

"Obama, there. Hell, if he'd bend over a little backwards there to West Virginia and get that, what is that, EPA? Tell them to get on down the road, and hell with the lizard. Man needs to work," says Vance.

Vance was referring to salamanders, which are often endangered by mining activity.

County At A Crossroads

At a crossroads called Lenore, there's a minimart, running busy all day with trucks driving through. A couple of old friends sit on a bench. Eugene Newsome says he will vote in the presidential election — but he won't stay with his party.

"I'm been a Democrat all my life, but I'm going to vote Republican this fall," says Newsome.

His buddy, Lee Goff, says he's 100 percent behind the president, especially on clean air issues.

"He wants the power plants to go clean fuel, which that's common sense to do. He's doing what's right for the country, I believe," says Goff.

In this part of West Virginia and across the Tug Fork River in eastern Kentucky, there's a new measure of pride in the Hatfield-McCoy legend. A television miniseries on the History Channel has been stirring up tourism. It's about the 19th century family feud between two families that settled on either side of the Tug Fork.

Outdoor sports tourism has also been bringing money into this part of West Virginia. The Hatfield-McCoy trail system was built for all-terrain vehicles. Sometimes you'll even ride on old coal mine access roads.

The tourism money is encouraging for Mingo County. But this is a coal economy, sliding further away from any prosperity, losing out to natural gas and threatened by tough regulations that make coal more expensive to mine and burn.

In June, the EPA held a public hearing in Pikeville, Ky., about an hour's drive from Mingo County. A lot of the Mingo County miners were there.

The EPA, concerned about water quality in streams, has been delaying applications for some new mines. If you wanted to object to any of the EPA actions, you could stand and do so.

Bobby May, chairman of the Republican Party of Buchanan County, across the border in Virginia, got applause when he stood and said: "I'm gonna say something to all these miners assembled here tonight that you're not going to hear from Barack Hussein [Obama] and that's, 'God bless a coal miner.' ... 'Hussein' in Arabic means, 'I hate coal miners.' And folks, I want to say this to you tonight, that anybody that thinks that coal mining is ugly, just wait until you see poverty."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Mingo County, West Virginia, is far down in the southwest corner of the state. It's one of the coalmining counties where President Obama lost the May 8th Democratic primary. Many voters there believe the president is waging a war on coal. Mr. Obama did win statewide in West Virginia, but in Mingo County, he lost to Keith Judd, a convicted felon serving time in Texas for extortion. Judd managed to file his papers and get on the ballot from prison and he got 61 percent of the vote.

NPR's Noah Adams went to Mingo County to find out what happened.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: (Unintelligible) state West Virginia, they vote the way they want to vote. Republicans have won the state in the last three presidential elections. The governor is a Democrat and the two Senators, but still, how could a president running in his party's primary lose 10 counties to a guy in prison?

LEIGH ANN WELLS: You saw this person's name you've never seen before and he was on there, on the Democratic ticket.

ADAMS: Keith Judd?

WELLS: Mm-hmm.

ADAMS: What did you do?

WELLS: I voted for him.

ADAMS: This is Leigh Ann Wells. She works for the Mingo County Commission. That night, when she went home, the election results were on television.

WELLS: My husband was sitting on the couch. He said, you know that Judd guy who was on the ticket against Obama? And I said, yeah. He said, he's a felon in Texas. He's in jail.

ADAMS: The overwhelming issue in Mingo County is the future of coalmining. You will hear, see and read talk about Obama's war on coal, people blaming the White House for mines shutdown, coal burning power plants shut down, jobs gone.

And I talked with lots of people just like Leigh Ann Wells who would have tapped the voting screen for Keith Judd even if they did know he was in prison, even if it meant the TV talk shows would make fun of West Virginia.

WELLS: It was a little bit embarrassing and I don't care. It was more so a stance against Obama. Here in West Virginia, people feel like he doesn't even know we exist.

ADAMS: The White House would say there's a push for coal, not a war against it. In his State of the Union 2011 speech, President Obama talked about energy sources, including natural gas and clean coal. The president said, we will need them all, and he's promised more investment in coal technology, so maybe not a war, but there is a battle coming. It's over the word clean, in front of the word coal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

ADAMS: When you drive into Mingo County and first get out of the car, you'll smell coal in the air. After a day or so, you won't notice it. By the second night, you'll sleep without hearing the coal trains, but you always seem to be aware of the mountains, the hills, close in, all around.

BILL RICHARDSON: These very rugged mountains have isolated us.

ADAMS: This is Bill Richardson, historian and a Mingo County native.

RICHARDSON: It even shaped the accent because the old English accents didn't get blended away. It made people very clannish. They knew when there was a stranger in town because people didn't come here. It also made people very rugged and self-reliant.

ADAMS: I took a drive way back in the country. Go out to Dingess, people said, if you really want to see Mingo County. You'll get to go through an old railroad tunnel. It's almost a mile long.

I'm going to walk in the front of the tunnel here to get a sense of what it sounds like. When it was built, it was for a rail line carrying lumber and people. It's very dark and very drippy here.

The community called Dingess is a road through a winding narrow valley, small houses along each side. The people who live here come from people who always lived here and, to them, the coal trucks speeding by, that can be a friendly sound.

WADE MARCUM: I retired from coalmines March 15, 2000.

ADAMS: Wade and Madge Marcum talked with me out in the yard.

MARCUM: That (unintelligible) is in prison, that's the one I voted for.

ADAMS: The Marcums worry about retirement and the jobs for their family and neighbors.

MADGE MARCUM: The coalminers and that, they're upset over it because he's not for coal and that's what these people do, you know. It's all they know.

ADAMS: Farther along the Dingess Road, another front yard. Meet Sammy Vance.

SAMMY VANCE: Obama there, hell, if he'd bend over a little backwards there to West Virginia and get that - what is that? APA? Tell them to get on down the road and hell with the lizard. Man needs to work.

ADAMS: The EPA?

VANCE: The environmentalists, just like at Bang(ph) Creek here. They had permits and everything setting up there and, all of a sudden, they just yanked them.

ADAMS: A coalmine up here?

VANCE: Yeah.

ADAMS: Sammy Vance made a reference there to the salamander, often endangered by mining activity. A few of us are talking, leaning on the back of a pickup. Sam White looks ready for this question.

What exactly has Obama done to hurt coal? Because the jobs have gone up, I read, seven percent...

SAM WHITE: No, sir.

ADAMS: ...since he came to office.

WHITE: Jobs in what? In the coalmining industry?

ADAMS: In West Virginia.

WHITE: Well, I'll tell you, if you look at your statistics, I know that not there. I work for a contracting shop. Man, they right now are 40 people down.

ADAMS: At a crossroads called Lenore, there's a mini mart running busy all day with the trucks. A couple of old friends sit on a bench. Eugene Newsome says he will vote in the presidential election, but he won't stay with his party.

EUGENE NEWSOME: I've been a Democrat all my life, but I'm going to vote Republican this fall.

ADAMS: But his buddy, Lee Goff, says he's 100 percent behind the president, especially on clean air issues.

LEE GOFF: He wants the power plants to go clean fuel, which that's common sense to do. He's done what's right for the country, I believe.

ADAMS: In this part of West Virginia and across the Tug Fork River in Kentucky, there's a new measure of pride in the Hatfield and McCoy legend. A television miniseries has been stirring up tourism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE)

ADAMS: And the outdoor sports money is more solid. People come from all over to ride the Hatfield McCoy trail system built for ATVs, the all-terrain vehicles. Sometimes, you'll ride on the old coalmine access roads.

BILL WILSEY: This is a Polaris 850. Our two boys are riding Yamaha 250s.

ADAMS: Bill Wilsey's(ph) family of ATVers getting set to head up Buffalo Mountain - they came from Fort Worth, Texas.

WILSEY: We don't have riding like this in Texas. Too much private land. There's not any public land to ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLES)

ADAMS: The tourism money is encouraging for Mingo County, but this is a coal economy sliding further away from any prosperity, losing out to natural gas, threatened by tough regulations that make coal more expensive to mine and to burn.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, held a public hearing in Pikeville, Kentucky. If you wanted to object to any of the EPA actions, you could stand and do so.

BOBBY MAY: Hello. I'm Bobby May, chairman of the Republican Party of Buchanan County, across the border in Virginia, and I'm going to say something to all these manners assembled here tonight that you're not going to hear it from Barack Hussein Obama and that's God bless a coalminer. Hussein, in Arabic, means I hate coalminers. And, folks, I want to say this to you now. To anybody that thinks that coalmining is ugly, just wait until you see poverty.

ADAMS: Throughout the night and the day, coal trains roll out of Mingo County, West Virginia. In President Obama's vision, coal will be a part of a clean energy future. If the political advocacy group Friends of Coal has its way, a different president will help make different choices.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.