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Obama's 'Clean Coal' Fighting Words To W.Va. Dems

The Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, W.Va., is also home to The Coal House, built entirely of coal in 1933.
Noah Adams
The Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, W.Va., is also home to The Coal House, built entirely of coal in 1933.

Mingo County, deep in the southwest corner of West Virginia, has sent a "protest vote" to the attention of President Obama. In the May 8 Democratic primary, voters chose a man named Keith Judd to run for president. He got 61 percent of the vote.

Judd won't be available. He's serving a 17-year sentence for extortion. From prison in Texas, he managed to file the papers, pay the fee and get on the West Virginia ballot.

Obama did win statewide, but Judd beat him in the coal mining region, where many believe the president is waging a "War on Coal."

In West Virginia, residents vote the way they want to vote: Republicans have won the state in the last three presidential elections. But the governor (Earl Ray Tomblin) and both U.S. senators (Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin) are Democrats.

But still, how could a president running in his party's primary lose 10 counties to a guy in prison?

The Answer: Coal

The overwhelming issue in Mingo County is the future of coal mining. You will hear, see and read talk about "Obama's War On Coal," people blaming the White House for mines shut down, coal-burning power plants shut down and jobs gone.

Leigh Ann Wells, who works for the Mingo County Commission, says she voted for Judd over Obama in the Democratic primary without knowing anything about Judd. When she arrived at home that night, the election results were on television.

"My husband was sitting on the couch and he said, 'You know that Judd guy who was on the ticket against Obama?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'He's a felon in Texas. He's in jail,' " says Wells, laughing.

I talked with lots of people like Wells who would have tapped the voting screen for Judd even if they did know he was in prison — even if it meant the TV talk shows would make fun of West Virginia.

"It was a little bit embarrassing, and I don't care," says Wells. "It was more so a stance against ... Obama and his coal policies and just the fact that here in West Virginia people feel like he doesn't even know we exist."

The White House would say there's a push for coal, not a war against it.

In his State of the Union address last year, Obama talked about energy sources, including natural gas and clean coal. "We will need them all," the president said, promising more investment in coal technology.

So maybe not a war — but there is a battle coming. And it's over the word "clean" in front of the word "coal."

The Culture Of Coal

When you drive into Mingo County and first get out of the car, you'll smell coal in the air. After a day or so, you won't notice it.

By the second night, you'll sleep without hearing the coal trains. But you always seem to be aware of the mountains, the hills, which are close in and all around.

"These very rugged mountains have isolated us," says Bill Richardson, a historian and Mingo County native. "It even shaped the accent, because the old English accents didn't get blended away. It made people very clannish. They knew when there was a stranger in town because people didn't come here. It also made people very rugged and self-reliant. And still today, you see that people here don't want to be told what to do."

About 27,000 people live in Mingo County, where the median household income is $32,902 a year, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The county occupies 423 square miles.

"Go out to Dingess," people said, "if you really want to see Mingo County." I drove way back in the country heading through an old railroad tunnel, almost a mile long, built for a rail line to carry lumber and people.

The community called Dingess is a road through a winding, narrow valley, small houses along each side. The people who live here come from people who always lived here. To them, the coal trucks speeding by can be a friendly sound.

"That'n that was in prison? Against Obama? That's the one I voted for," says Wade Marcum, a retired coal miner.

Marcum and his wife, Madge, say they worry about their retirement and jobs for their family and neighbors.

"The coal miners and that, they're upset over it 'cause [Obama's] not for coal, and that's what these people do, you know. That's all they know," says Madge.

Farther along the Dingess Road in another front yard, I meet Sammy Vance.

"Obama, there. Hell, if he'd bend over a little backwards there to West Virginia and get that, what is that, EPA? Tell them to get on down the road, and hell with the lizard. Man needs to work," says Vance.

Vance was referring to salamanders, which are often endangered by mining activity.

County At A Crossroads

At a crossroads called Lenore, there's a minimart, running busy all day with trucks driving through. A couple of old friends sit on a bench. Eugene Newsome says he will vote in the presidential election — but he won't stay with his party.

"I'm been a Democrat all my life, but I'm going to vote Republican this fall," says Newsome.

His buddy, Lee Goff, says he's 100 percent behind the president, especially on clean air issues.

"He wants the power plants to go clean fuel, which that's common sense to do. He's doing what's right for the country, I believe," says Goff.

A sign outside the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, W.Va., welcomes visitors to "Hatfield McCoy Country," referring to a legendary family feud that played out in the Appalachians.
Noah Adams / NPR
A sign outside the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, W.Va., welcomes visitors to "Hatfield McCoy Country," referring to a legendary family feud that played out in the Appalachians.

In this part of West Virginia and across the Tug Fork River in eastern Kentucky, there's a new measure of pride in the Hatfield-McCoy legend. A television miniseries on the History Channel has been stirring up tourism. It's about the 19th century family feud between two families that settled on either side of the Tug Fork.

Outdoor sports tourism has also been bringing money into this part of West Virginia. The Hatfield-McCoy trail system was built for all-terrain vehicles. Sometimes you'll even ride on old coal mine access roads.

The tourism money is encouraging for Mingo County. But this is a coal economy, sliding further away from any prosperity, losing out to natural gas and threatened by tough regulations that make coal more expensive to mine and burn.

In June, the EPA held a public hearing in Pikeville, Ky., about an hour's drive from Mingo County. A lot of the Mingo County miners were there.

The EPA, concerned about water quality in streams, has been delaying applications for some new mines. If you wanted to object to any of the EPA actions, you could stand and do so.

Bobby May, chairman of the Republican Party of Buchanan County, across the border in Virginia, got applause when he stood and said: "I'm gonna say something to all these miners assembled here tonight that you're not going to hear from Barack Hussein [Obama] and that's, 'God bless a coal miner.' ... 'Hussein' in Arabic means, 'I hate coal miners.' And folks, I want to say this to you tonight, that anybody that thinks that coal mining is ugly, just wait until you see poverty."

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Noah Adams, long-time co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, brings more than three decades of radio experience to his current job as a contributing correspondent for NPR's National Desk., focusing on the low-wage workforce, farm issues, and the Katrina aftermath. Now based in Ohio, he travels extensively for his reporting assignments, a position he's held since 2003.