GRANT TOWN — Michael Whitten’s dad didn’t get rich from coal. While the Boone County miner was able to make an adequate living for his family during the boom years of the industry, he paid for it in the end.
The elder Whitten was coughing, rasping and tethered to an oxygen tank when he succumbed to black lung at the age of 67.
“It was horrible,” his son said Saturday, at the gates of the coal-fired Grant Town Power Plant in northern Marion County. “He had to fight for every breath.”
These days, Whitten is fighting for an energy overhaul in the Mountain State. Coal, he said, is no longer King.
“I still live in Boone County,” he said. “I grew up with mines all around me, but it’s not like it was. We’re gonna have to start doing things differently. We could be a leader in alternative energy if our lawmakers would let us.”
When he says “lawmakers,” he’s really referring to one: Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s senior senator on Capitol Hill.
Whitten was among the 400 so other kindred spirts, according to official estimates, who assembled at the foot of the power plant, which is on a rise overlooking the former coal camp.
That’s almost half of Grant Town’s population, which listed 585 residents in the U.S. census last year.
The activist group known as “West Virginia Rising,” organized the rally, which was also billed as “The Coal Baron Blockade.”
When that group says, “baron,” it’s also referring to Manchin, whose coal brokerage firm usually takes in half a million dollars a year from the power plant.
The senator’s Fairmont-based Enersystems company, which is run by his son, Joseph Manchin IV, supplies a low-grade coal byproduct to the operation. It’s known as “gob,” which literally stands for, “garbage of bituminous.”
Its rocks are made up of shale, iron pyrite and other elemental dribs and drabs that are the geologic leftovers of mining.
Gob can burn – just not cleanly. Gob also isn’t good for the environment.
When the iron pyrite in it reacts to inevitable exposures of oxygen and water, sulfuric acid is created.
And when sulfuric acid is introduced to creeks and streams, you get orange rocks and blighted fish you don’t want to eat after you reel them in, Deanna Thomas said.
“You see all these tumors and ulcers,” said the Fairmont woman, who used to enjoy casting a line in the water for relaxation. “It’s awful. I don’t want it to be our legacy.”
Now, she won’t even drink tap water, she said.
To date, Manchin hasn’t responded to the protest, which was largely without incident. Protestors huddled against off-and-on rain for the day.
A buzzing alarm from the plant blared during most of the proceedings while speakers wielded microphones and a bullhorn.
West Virginia state troopers and Marion County deputies arrested 16 people who attempted to form a human chain around the plant, by lashing themselves with padlocks and PVC piping.
Besides the environmental concerns, the question about dollars hung in the air like smoke from a stack.
How big of a conflict of interest is there, the protestors were wondering, for a senator who can direct energy policy from Washington – while, at the same time, existing in a business arrangement with a utility in his home state that relies on fossil fuels?
J. Davitt McAteer had that same question last week.
McAteer is a Fairmont native who served in the Clinton White House as assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. His father came from Ireland to work in the mines.
He was a WVU law student in 1968, when the Farmington No. 9 mine blew, and his whitepaper that followed was a catalyst to the nation’s first comprehensive mine and safety act that following year.
McAteer said Manchin’s voting record on energy policy isn’t helping – “He appears to be contributing mightily to the problem, while reaping untold benefits.”
Brian Figley, who drove down from New Brunswick, N.J., for the day, said it was a simple matter of numbers.
Numbers, he knows. He teaches high school math back home.
“He’s making money off his constituents,” the teacher said, nodding at the power plant’s gates, which were also padlocked.