Despite catastrophes, the climate in the US coal country is an election campaign issue

Despite catastrophes, the climate in the US coal country is an election campaign issue


Chase Hays says he’s “torn”. After seeing his village in the mountains of eastern Kentucky devastated by flooding, he filed a lawsuit against the mine it overlooks, but the 34-year-old doesn’t want to be seen as an “enemy” of coal.

Like him, many in his Appalachian region are reluctant to challenge an industry that has long been the only high-paying job.

And with the US midterm elections approaching, few candidates dare to talk about climate change.

But the state has recently been devastated by extreme weather.

In December, tornadoes killed 80 people in western Kentucky, and in late July, unprecedented heavy rains killed 40 in eastern Kentucky.

At the end of a secluded valley on the banks of a small stream, Hays had never seen water come down so quickly.

He barely had time to cut through a fence to escape with his family when the stream washed away his porch, an above-ground pool, even a pig, and flooded the foundation of his home.

Although he still can’t live there, he considers himself “one of the lucky ones in my neighborhood” called River Caney, where about 20 houses were destroyed and two women were swept away.

He was also insured, unlike his neighbors, some of whom still sleep in tents with no prospect of a roof before winter.

On behalf of these neighbors, he filed a complaint against the mining company that mines coal above the hamlet.

Hays believes one of the company’s detention ponds ruptured as the rain intensified.

“A big part of the reason the ponds could rupture was because they were just being blasted way too hard and probably rupturing the ponds,” he said.

– Climate change and fossil fuels –

But Hays comes from a long line of miners and is wary of generalizations.

“What happened here was the fault of (things) not being maintained and checked,” he said.

About 50 neighbors have joined his lawsuit, including Christy White, a 57-year-old woman whose once neat home is now a damp shell.

As a grandmother, White shivers at the mention of the floods.

“Eventually you start bombing and drilling and cutting into the corners, you know, eventually something’s going to happen. It’s just common knowledge,” she said.

In recent years, mining companies in the Appalachian Mountains have attempted strip mining, or hilltop mining, to gain easier access to coal seams.

Whether open pit mining will make flooding worse is uncertain, said William Haneberg, Kentucky state geologist and director of the Kentucky Geological Survey.

Mountain top removals “expose a lot of bare rock and remove the trees and natural vegetation,” he said, but the rubble is dumped into the valleys, leveling the terrain “and that could reduce the severity of flooding.”

He acknowledged a “very strong consensus” among scientists that global warming is being driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

“This is how coal mines tie into recent events,” he said.

– ‘Long Smoldering Hostility’ –

But that conclusion is not shared by many in Kentucky, which has 20 percent of the active coal mines in the United States.

Hays has heard the studies on global warming: “It’s not a nice topic to talk about around here just because this place is dwindling without coal.”

Luke Glaser, an independent councilor in nearby Hazard who has been heavily involved in relief efforts, said there was “a long-simmering hostility to climate change initiatives” locally.

“Appalachians . . . take great pride in the fact that the work they have done has advanced the nation for centuries. So it feels like you’re not just attacking someone’s job, you’re attacking someone’s values,” Glaser said.

The state, once contested by the two major political parties, has become overwhelmingly Republican since the 1990s, in part due to energy and environmental concerns, said Steve Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

More recently, candidates from both parties have been wary of “emphasizing that they’re pro-coal friends,” although some Democrats are starting to talk about climate, he said.

For locals like Hays, even with catastrophic flooding, the climate change debate has little impact on elections.

“We feel forgotten here,” Hays said. “We’re just seen as uneducated and inept people.”

As for White, an avid fan of former President Donald Trump, her damaged home is on all of her mind, and she hasn’t thought about the midterm elections at all.

As she sorted her belongings, she questioned whether global warming had anything to do with the disasters: “I just think it’s God’s will…God is just trying to prepare us for what’s to come.”

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