THE BLOG
04/16/2014 07:49 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2014

The West Virginia Trance

West Virginia is schizophrenic when it comes to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On one hand, many West Virginians view the federal agency as an intrusive job killer for excessively regulating the coal industry in the state. Nonetheless, immediately following a serious coal mining disaster (as is wont to happen in West Virginia), attitudes towards the EPA inevitably undergo change. They range from "where the heck were you" to "let's get together and try and prevent a repeat performance."

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before the deeply entrenched antagonism towards the federal agency returns, spurred by industry's shrill accusations that President Obama's EPA regulators are "waging a war on coal."

It is true that coal jobs provide relatively good salaries and benefits for West Virginians. But the industry's stranglehold on the state and its politicians defies logic.

In addition to major mining disasters, the coal industry has been polluting the picturesque state's waterways and scarring its landscape for nearly a century, with significant adverse public health and ecological ramifications. The economic importance the state attributes to coal is inflated, considering the industry employs less than four percent of West Virginia's work force. Walmart is the largest private employer in the state and there is a significant biotech and public sector presence.

How beneficial, then, is the existence of good coal jobs for the relatively few to West Virginia's overall welfare these many years? In recent federal rankings of the states, West Virginia ends up 46th or 49th in poverty, depending on which set of calculations you use. It is next to last in median household income, seventh worst in life expectancy and fifth worst in general public health.

As for President Obama's supposed "war on coal," the Mining Safety and Health Administration reports there were 15 percent more coal jobs in the state in 2013 than during the term of George W. Bush. Still, the industry is losing ground, although most economists agree it is not due to regulation. Rather, the cause is competition from cheap, abundant natural gas and a surge in more job-intensive renewable energy utilization.

Many West Virginians clearly remain conflicted. A recent Sierra Club poll found that an overwhelming majority supported strong environmental regulations and believed that state regulators were lax in policing pollution. Four environmental groups even petitioned (unsuccessfully) the EPA to take over for state regulators, who cannot proceed without the oft compromised state legislature's approval. Consequently, the regulators tend to strike sweetheart deals with the coal industry after it has been caught in the act.

Conflicted public or not, the state's politicians from both parties have consistently and confidently sided with coal. It remains to be seen whether it is because they have been bought by industry campaign contributions or ultimately mesmerized by the state's century old cultural dependency on coal, just like so many of their constituents.

In any event, the Pavlovian reflex in defense of the industry persists, come what may. West Virginia's democratic governor was an apologist for the coal industry the very day after the January coal-related spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 Charleston residents. And on the same day of that spill, House Republicans, with the support of the bipartisan West Virginia congressional delegation, voted to weaken the EPA's authority to regulate coal-powered emissions.

Democratic West Virginia U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller speculates that this apparently inbred brainwashing vis-a-vis the coal industry could stem from the stoic nature of the many Scottish and Irish who originally settled in the state.

Maybe so, but it is high time West Virginians snapped out of their self-destructive trance and faced up to modern day reality.