GRANT TOWN, W.Va.
It’s coal people like miner Steve Knotts, 62, who make West Virginia Trump Country.
So it was no surprise that President Donald Trump picked the state to announce his plan rolling back Obama-era pollution controls on coal-fired power plants.
Trump left one thing out of his remarks, though: northern West Virginia coal country will be ground zero for increased deaths and illnesses from the rollback on regulation of harmful emission from the nation’s coal power plants.
An analysis done by his own Environmental Protection Agency concludes that the plan would lead to a greater number of people here dying prematurely, and suffering health problems that they otherwise would not have, than elsewhere in the country, when compared to health impacts of the Obama plan.
Knotts, a coal miner for 35 years, isn’t fazed when he hears that warning, a couple of days after Trump’s West Virginia rally. He says the last thing people in coal country want is the government slapping down more controls on coal – and the air here in the remote West Virginia mountains seems fine to him.
“People here have had it with other people telling us what we need. We know what we need. We need a job,” Knotts said at lunch hour at a Circle K in a tiny town between two coal mines, and 9 miles down the road from a coal power plant, the Grant Town plant.
The sky around Grant Town is bright blue. The mountains are a dazzling green. Paw Paw Creek gurgles past the town.
Clean-air controls since the 1980s largely turned off the columns of black soot that used to rise from coal smokestacks. The regulations slashed the national death rates from coal-fired power plants substantially.
These days pollutants rise from smoke stacks as gases, before solidifying into fine particles – still invisible – small enough to pass through lungs and into bloodstreams.
An EPA analysis says those pollutants would increase under Trump’s plan, when compared to what would happen under the Obama plan. And that, it says, would lead to thousands more heart attacks, asthma problems and other illnesses that would not have occurred.
Nationally, the EPA says, 350 to 1,500 more people would die each year under Trump’s plan. But it’s the northern two-thirds of West Virginia and the neighboring part of Pennsylvania that would be hit hardest, by far, according to Trump’s EPA.
Trump’s rollback would kill an extra 1.4 to 2.4 people a year for every 100,000 people in those hardest-hit areas, compared to under the Obama plan, according to the EPA analysis. For West Virginia’s 1.8 million people, that would be equal to at least a couple dozen additional deaths a year.
Trump’s acting EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist whose grandfather worked in the coal camps of West Virginia, headed to coal states this week and last to promote Trump’s rollback. The federal government’s retreat on regulating pollution from coal power plants was “good news,” Wheeler told crowds there.
In Washington, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said Trump’s plan still would result in “dramatic reductions” in emissions, deaths and illness compared to the status quo, instead of to the Obama plan. Obama’s Clean Power Plan targeted climate-changing carbon dioxide, but since coal is the largest source of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, the Obama plan would have curbed other harmful emissions from the coal-fired power plants as well.
About 160 miles to the south of Grant Town, near the state capital of Charleston, shop owner Doris Keller figures that if Trump thinks something’s for the best, that’s good enough for her.
“I just know this. I like Donald Trump and I think that he’s doing the right thing,” said Keller, who turned out to support Trump on Aug. 21 when he promoted his rollback proposal.
“I think he has the best interests of the regular common people at the forefront,” Keller said.