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A coalition of progressive environmental and policy groups has a economic plan for the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia — including Southwestern Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. ReImagine Appalachia breaks away from traditional fossil fuel extraction, and relies on federal stimulus dollars to build a sustainable economy with an eye towards racial equality and solving the climate crisis.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Amanda Woodrum, Senior Researcher at Policy Matters Ohio, which took the lead in developing the plan. 

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: What are the goals of this blueprint?

Amanda Woodrum: We have a multi-prong approach that revolves around public investments that come with strings attached. Those strings are designed to maximize union jobs to do the work, ensure that coal workers have genuine opportunities, and that our work force going forward has to be more diverse in nature. That means building pathways for Black, Indigenous and other people of color into union jobs, like union apprenticeship programs. 

“Appalachia can do its part to figure out how to become carbon neutral, but do it our way.”

Holsopple: And you’re looking for Appalachia to be carbon neutral by 2050?

Woodrum: Appalachia can do its part to figure out how to become carbon neutral, but do it our way. This is not about retraining and relocating our workers to places that they don’t want to go, for jobs that they don’t have. 

We actually need coal workers to help us build the 21st century that we want to live in. That means work laying rail, for instance, or building out electric vehicle infrastructure for a more sustainable transportation system. That means work modernizing the electric grid — for instance, putting more of it under ground so that it can deal with the increasingly severe storms which we’re seeing from climate change. 

Eco-Industrial Parks, CCC and Carbon Farming

Holsopple: I’m interested in some of the other nuts and bolts of how you get to carbon neutrality, to higher paying jobs, and more inclusivity. A couple of things that are outlined in the blueprint are the manufacturing of alternatives to single use plastic, and also reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps. Can you talk a little bit about those?

Woodrum: We have incredible assets in Appalachia. One of those is that coal fired power plants, many of which are now shuttered or shuttering, are located in great locations. They have transportation infrastructure. They have energy infrastructure. We can repurpose those sites into eco-industrial parks. One manufacturer’s waste might be another manufacturer’s productive input. It also revolves around providing access to combined heat and power, and shared energy resources, including renewables. These eco-industrial parks can reduce operating costs for manufacturers in a way that doesn’t put downward pressure on wages. 

“Given the economic fallout from Covid-19…reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps is an awesome opportunity to put people to work.”

The original Civilian Conservation Corps was a public works program that put people to work during the Great Depression. Given the economic fallout from Covid-19 that we think is not going to go away, reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps is an awesome opportunity to put people to work. When it comes to Appalachia, that includes repairing the damage from the last century. Extractive industries have scarred our lands. We can put people to work remediating brownfields, specifically coal ash ponds at the shuttered coal plants, reforesting the region and capping orphaned oil and gas wells. 

When it comes to shooting for carbon neutrality, carbon farming is an important piece of the puzzle in Appalachia.The essence of that is that you don’t have to get rid of every single emission you put into the air, because we can absorb carbon. Trees absorb carbon. So if we reforest the region and restore wetlands, promote local farmers over Big AG and their land degrading practices, we can actually make a significant impact on our carbon footprint.

Holsopple: How much input did you get from workers, and specifically unions, on this blueprint? 

Woodrum: Policy Matters Ohio is a progressive think tank, and we’re part of a network of think tanks that include our partners, Keystone Research Center in Pennsylvania, West Virginia’s Center on Budget and Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. We all work with organized labor, and we all have organized labor on our boards. We all have relationships with organized labor that we’ve built on, and as part of that effort, we held a listening session for labor leaders about our draft blueprint. We’ve had a number of one-on-one conversations with labor leaders. We think we created a plan that organized labor could ultimately get behind. 

Holsopple: What about other people in Appalachia, many of whom are politically conservative and have ties to the fossil fuel industry? Do you think they’ll go for a plan like this? 

Woodrum: I think that people in Appalachia are unique, and they don’t fit the cookie cutter approach that people outside of Appalachia think. A lot of people think of Appalachia as Trump country. But I think what they don’t understand is that back in the 2016 election, there were a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters [in Appalachia.] When Bernie Sanders bowed out, there were anecdotal stories of a number of people swapping their Bernie Sanders signs for Trump signs. I think it’s hard for people to wrap their brains around what that means. 

“What the people of Appalachia respond to is sort of a willingness to change and blow up the existing political system.”

At the end of the day, people in Appalachia feel left behind. You look at the poverty rates in Appalachia now versus 20 years ago, and every year in between, and it’s been the same, despite lots and lots of promises from candidates, from both parties. 

What the people of Appalachia respond to is sort of a willingness to change and blow up the existing political system. I think the idea of the New Deal that works for us does that. It sort of takes this moment of opportunity where it’s more obvious than ever that we need structural reform to our economy, and puts it on a piece of paper.

Holsopple: What are your next steps now that your blueprint has been laid out? How does this become a reality? 

Woodrum: We hope to engage in the national conversation over the next several months, and to beat the drum on our vision and the blueprint for how to get there. We watched the Democratic National Convention, and we feel like there are gaps. Climate change was a pretty big centerpiece of the Democratic national platform, but it only mentions Appalachia once. 

There’s some really exciting things in there, many of which relate to what we’re calling for investment-wise in our blueprint, but the Democratic National Convention platform doesn’t specifically call out investments into Appalachia for these things. We just want to make sure that that happens and in fact, that Appalachia gets a fair share of any climate change investment.

Amanda Woodrum is senior researcher at Policy Matters Ohio

Top photo: Photo: AdamParent / iStock