WV Spotlight WV Coalfield Communities

Two years ago, lawmakers made recommendations to revitalize West Virginia’s devastated coalfield communities. Little has been done

The state has still yet to fund the commission created to facilitate grant funding to help address the critical needs of the state’s struggling coalfield communities.

GARY —  Years ago, Gary was a sprawling, coal-producing powerhouse. Now, the McDowell County town is a community left in tatters with rows of decaying duplexes, deserted buildings and abandoned sewer and water plants — still criss-crossed with the train tracks that were once used to send the coal to the steel mills in Pittsburgh. 

“That’s just how important the coal industry was,” said Ed Evans, a former delegate from McDowell, pointing to the tracks. “I mean, it was no joke here.” 

“I hate to talk a lot of past tense, but it is what it is,” he added. 

A local grocery store and Dollar General are all that’s left of the town’s former business district, which used to have a variety of restaurants and shops. Nearby, the remaining coal company-built duplexes are crumbling but still inhabited.

“People live in every one of these homes because they have nowhere else to go. They can’t afford to go anywhere else,” said Evans. “And it’s just sickening. It’s a shame.”

Gary and West Virginia’s other coalfield communities need jobs to bolster their economies, retain populations and, hopefully, attract both new residents and industries. But even before that, many communities need basic infrastructure, including housing, clean drinking water and working sewage systems. 

For a while, there seemed to be some momentum. After years of lip service with little action, in 2021, spurred by a passionate floor speech by Evans, House of Delegates leaders tasked an informal workgroup with conducting a listening tour to hear about these communities’ needs. But nearly two years later, lawmakers have yet to act on the bulk of the workgroup’s recommendations.  

For people like Welch native Thomas Bell, who attended a listening session, the lack of action is a let-down. 

“I thought it would be possible they would do something,” Bell said. “But it hasn’t happened yet. And it hasn’t been mentioned since then as far as that goes. Nobody talks about it.” 

“It’s kind of disappointing to me personally,” he added.

The Coal Community Workgroup

In April 2021, Evans was distraught. He had successfully inserted an amendment into a coal-related bill that would have tasked the state’s Public Service Commission with developing a plan to bolster the state’s ravaged coal communities through various avenues, including improving infrastructure and increasing economic opportunities. But later as the amendment was at risk, Evans made a fervent speech to his colleagues in the House Chamber.

“Help me,” Evans pleaded. “Quit being a D and an R. Be a West Virginian for Christ’s sake. Imagine if we had a coalfield comeback. People working down my way instead of standing on the streets.” 

The bill passed without Evan’s “Coal Community Comeback Plan” amendment, but the speech prompted Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, to establish the Coal Community Workgroup, an informal panel of lawmakers “dedicated to developing proposals to help revitalize West Virginia communities.” 

“These members will now have the authority and the flexibility to go into communities, communicate with officials at all levels, and really determine what our coal communities need to succeed so they can come back to us with solid recommendations and then drive those solutions home to the full Legislature when we come back next session,” Hanshaw said in a press release

The group traveled throughout West Virginia in the fall of 2021, hosting listening sessions in both the state’s northern and southern coalfields to hear from people most impacted by the coal industry’s decline. 

They found that the needs of the communities could be divided into six main categories: address basic infrastructure; diversify economies; expand recreation and tourism; support local efforts to access outside resources; expand educational workforce opportunities and help vulnerable populations. 

Following the community meetings, the group produced a 14-page report in January 2022 that recommended more than 80 measures to help West Virginia’s devastated coalfield communities.

Hanshaw then appointed 11 of the workgroup members to a House Select Committee on Coalfield Communities during the 2022 legislative session, which allowed them to introduce legislation and make recommendations just like other committees. But despite the lawmakers’ extensive report of recommendations to choose from, the committee only introduced four bills during the session. Of those, only one made it out of the House and ultimately was signed into law. 

The Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission

The only measure from the committee to become law created a commission — the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission — charged with providing matching funds for grants awarded to coal communities. The move was timely: President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan had recently earmarked millions in federal funding for coal communities

“The idea was we would pull this money down, it would be available through grants which we would aid in writing,” said Evans, who served as the minority chair for the workgroup and select committee. “Cities were going to be gifted this basically because of the work we had done.” 

But the commission had other functions, too. 

“It was created to do a whole host of things: to provide educational resources, administrative and technical advice,” wrote House of Delegates spokeswoman Ann Ali in an email. “The Commission was tasked with reviewing applicants and approving funding awards as well as presenting to the Legislature any recommendations regarding appropriations to the fund and recommended policy necessary to facilitate more grant funding for coalfield communities.”

But nearly two years after the commission’s creation, even that single effort has gone nowhere due to a critical lack of both people and money. 

“We passed a bill that was pretty narrowly written to be able to set up an entity that could deliver the funds through the state for these communities,” said Lisa Zukoff, a former delegate from Marshall County who sat on both the coal workgroup and select committee. “And no funding was ever forthcoming to put it in the state budget.”

Under state law, Gov. Jim Justice was responsible for appointing the commission’s members, which he didn’t do until last February — nearly a year after the Legislature passed the measure that established the commission. And even then, Justice only appointed five members. 

Of those members, four of them only served for about ten months because their terms were set to expire Dec. 31, 2023, as mandated by state code. Only one currently remains on the commission, and there is no record in the West Virginia Secretary of State’s database of the body ever meeting. 

But even if the commission was fully staffed and meeting, they wouldn’t have any money to dole out. At the time of the bill’s passing, Evans said he was told the commission would be funded. But in the nearly two years since its creation, that money has never materialized. 

Del. Mark Dean, R-Mingo, who chaired the select committee, said while there was talk about funding the commission at the time, nothing was ever set in stone. As for why there still hasn’t been money allocated to the program, Dean said he didn’t know. 

If the state suddenly chose to funnel money into the program now, it’s likely most of the federal funds the committee was eyeing have already been allocated. 

“One more thing for us to talk about but never do,” Zukoff said. “And frankly, in our lifetime, how many more opportunities are we going to have to have that type of money put into our state to help with a truly important need? I think it’s just a shame that the state didn’t step up to the plate to add some funding at the time.” 

While lawmakers gear up for another legislative session, coalfield communities are still waiting for something to change. 

In Welch, Thomas Bell was optimistic after lawmakers held a 2021 listening session, feeling there was “extreme promise” that the issues discussed could be addressed. 

Now, that hope is diminished.

“We just hope and pray,” said Bell. “That’s all you can do, just hope and pray that there’s an end in sight. As of right now, I don’t see where it’s getting any better for the average person.”