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‘Big Tent’ Environmental Justice Plan Looks Past Racial Divides

Feb. 5, 2021, 10:31 AM

Environmental justice advocates are looking to link communities of color with experience fighting industrial polluters and landfills with polluted communities in Appalachia—a “big tent,” strength-in-numbers approach they say is ripe for results.

President Joe Biden, who has made environmental justice a priority for his administration, has taken action to encourage the approach. An executive order vowed to “deliver environmental justice in communities all across America” by resurrecting and elevating environmental justice advisory groups, including an interagency council directed to reach out to tribal officials, environmental justice organizations, community groups, and unions.

Advocacy groups in Black and Hispanic communities see advantages in joining forces with largely white and low-income communities in the Appalachian region, which includes West Virginia and about a dozen other states stretching from New York’s southern tier to Alabama.

Providing better-paying jobs or transitioning coal workers to clean energy jobs should be viewed as part of a “big tent that everybody can gather under,” said the Rev. Leo Woodberry, a Florence, S.C. pastor and environmental justice chairman of the Sierra Club’s campaign for a 100% clean energy economy.

“It’s everybody that is being impacted by pollution and impacted by these dirty extractive industries—that’s very inclusive,” Woodberry said.

The Black Lives Matter protests have sparked renewed interest in tackling environmental injustices, particularly for communities of color that have borne the brunt of polluting industries in their neighborhoods. The rural Appalachian coal region, settled by poorer whites, faces its own complex mix of pollution from mining, from contaminated groundwater to air pollution.

And an imagined split between lower-wealth white communities and communities of color is a narrative embraced by polluting industries including coal mining operations and coal-fired power plants, said Mustafa Ali, who headed the EPA’s environmental justice office. Ali and other advocates argue that such a split was an attempt to dilute the combined political power of both communities.

Ali, who now heads the National Wildlife Federation’s environmental justice efforts, said Appalachian communities need assurances amid increasing calls for moving the U.S. away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy.

“Say I’m a fourth-generation miner, and not blessed to go to college, but I work well with my hands and have watched the coal industry slowly disappear in the last 20 to 30 years,” Ali said. “I’m going to need assurances I can feed my family, pay my mortgage, and pay my car or truck off.”

‘Got to Help Everybody’

Biden sought to assure communities of color, which often ring power plants, as well as rural coal regions with predominately white populations with the creation of a new Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, a White House council to revitalize “coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities.”

The group will bring together top officials from nearly a dozen cabinet departments and the EPA but also the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which coordinates economic development efforts from federal and state governments focusing on the Appalachian Region.

Rural and urban areas often face the same environmental hazards, such as aging or contaminated water systems or inadequate sewage treatment, said Catherine Flowers, an Alabama activist who founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

“We shouldn’t be fracturing the support we can get—we’ve got to help everybody. And we shouldn’t be focusing only on one community or one pollutant,” she said.

Local advocates in Kentucky, part of the Appalachian Region, say they favor a big tent approach—as long as local activists and communities aren’t shunted to the side by big environmental groups.

“You can’t have someone who hasn’t been affected by this telling you what is happening in your own community,” said Teri Blanton, a former chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth who advocates for clean water and against mountaintop mining.

“It doesn’t hurt to have these big groups behind you, and sometimes they have the money that the small groups don’t have,” Blanton continued. “But I have been in a lot of situations where the big groups speak for you” and the push for local solutions to local pollution problems gets lost, she said.

People in Appalachia were fighting to abolish strip mining 40 years ago “and instead they got regulation,” and promises that coal dust and flooding could be controlled through stringent regulatory approaches,” Blanton said. But those promises “were empty ones,” she said.

Action Sought

A coalition of 13 coal-country groups and national organizations want decisive action from the federal government. They wrote to Biden asking him to create a White House Office of Economic Transition and boost funding for transition programs.

High on their wish list is a reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fund, which charges mining companies a fee for each ton of coal they extract to help clean up old mines. If the fund isn’t reauthorized before September, many states won’t be able to put out mine fires, stabilize dangerous “highwalls"—vertical surface mining areas—or plug up sinkholes.

Coal country advocates also want Congress to speed the delivery of already-collected funds to Appalachian states to pay for cleanup.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill in the last Congress, the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act, that would have achieved that goal. Manchin’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request about whether the bill would be reintroduced.

An umbrella approach connecting the needs of low-income white communities and communities of color is likely to produce more congressional action on environmental justice challenges, said National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara.

Coal states such as West Virginia and Wyoming play an outsized role in the Senate.

Manchin sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee but also chairs the Senate Energy panel. And any significant deals wouth require negotiations with Republican Sen. John Barrasso, who hails from Wyoming, the largest coal-producing state. West Virginia also has clout over at the Senate environment panel, where Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) leads Republicans.

The environmental justice movement in Appalachia could get a lift from having such high-profile lawmakers positioned to cut a deal, O’Mara said.

“If there was ever a time to lift up environmental justice and fossil-fuel dependent communities, now is the time,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at; Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at