CHARLESTON — Although ensconced at the University of Charleston Tuesday, the attention of West Virginia's Sierra Club was pointed across the Kanawha River at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's public hearing on the repeal of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Sierra was joined in its “Hearing for Healthy Communities” discussion by other state and national organizations with vested interest in environmental protection.

“The coal industry is not going to be the future for the jobs here in Appalachia and we know that and I think that they know that,” said Bill Price, with the Sierra Club opening up the event.

While much of the focus of the energy debate has been focused on coal jobs here in West Virginia, speakers at the event highlighted other impacts of the Clean Power Plan, as well as what they perceive as possible benefits from the plan.

First to speak was Alan Tweedle, CEO of West Virginia-based Composite Transport Technologies Inc.

“I'm an engineer,” Tweedle opened. “I've got 50 years experience in the whole world of pollution. That was my specialty as an engineer and I'm very, very concerned.”

Tweedle spoke out against what he said was a dangerous attitude toward climate change throughout the country, but specifically in West Virginia.

“The fascinating part of addressing climate change is it's an enormous economic opportunity,” Tweedle said. “The economic picture of climate change is so totally contrary to what you hear in this state, which I call the epicenter of climate denial.”

The life-long engineer, cited examples of perceived impact of climate change that are presently taking place.

Explaining that he has a close college friend living in Alaska, Tweedle highlighted 30 seaside Alaskan villages that are in immediate need of being moved, along with an additional 125 that will need to be moved in the next 10 years.

Highlighting an example of sea-level rise in the Mid-Atlantic, Tweedle explained the situation currently unfolding at the Norfolk Naval Station.

According to Tweedle, the home of America's Atlantic Fleet currently floods eight times a year, with estimates that flooding will take over the base 280 times a year by 2030.

“The military is completely committed to addressing climate change,” Tweedle said. “They don't even discuss it anymore.”

While Tweedle discussed his opinion on possible ramifications of climate change, he added the transition to renewable energies provides an opportunity for economic growth, a sentiment that was also shared by the Rev. Tony Pierce of Peoria, Illinois.

Pierce is also involved in social and environmental issues in his hometown and throughout his state.

According to Pierce, Illinois passed its own Clean Power Plan which the he said would add 35,000 jobs in the state.

“We know that it's not enough for us to fight and win in Illinois,” Pierce said. “If we really want to serve working class communities like mine and those that have been left behind by the declining coal industry, we can't repeal the Clean Power Plan, neither can we just leave it as it currently exists.”

While Pierce spoke on the possible economic benefits of renewable energy, he was far more concerned with the health impacts involved in burning fossil fuels.

According to Pierce, the neighborhood of his congregation is very near to a coal-fired power plant in Peoria.

“The neighborhoods of Peoria, my neighborhood, my children's neighborhood, cannot afford the cost of more pollution or the never ending increase in electricity bills,” Pierce said. “Sometimes I see decisionmakers dismiss health statistics associated with coal pollution. I know these statistics are real. I know they're real because these statistics are my family, my parishioners and the parishioners of my fellow clergy members.”

Also speaking on the health impacts of power plants powered by fossil fuels was Dr. Mona Sarfaty, executive director of The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

“The consortium societies opposes the termination of the Clean Power Plan because a decision to terminate is a choice that puts American lives at a greater risk,” Sarfaty read from a statement from the consortium that represents 19 medical societies encompassing a membership of over a half million doctors. “While many regard the Clean Power Plan primarily as an effort to reduce climate change, physicians realize it's about the health of people that we take care of.”

While Sarfaty highlighted the medical impacts of fossil fuel power plant and those placed at greater risk, she also highlighted an opportunity for their experiences to shape policy.

“It's really important to personalize this issue and to tell stories,” the doctor said.

David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clear Air Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), also spoke out against a repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

“The CPP is critical to slowing dangerous global warming and reducing other kinds of power plant pollution that are deadly to people,” Doniger said.

Doniger and the NRDC are no strangers to challenges to the Clean Power Plan.

According to Doniger, the NRDC defended the Clean Power Plan after it was sued in Oklahoma by then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt, now the administrator of the EPA.

Doniger was most perturbed by the fact that Pruitt and the EPA have scheduled only one public forum, this week in Charleston, against the four events held during the previous administration's efforts to pass the plan.

Doniger added that the chance for public input is still available and that his organization will make sure that input is heard.

“If he (Pruitt) goes through with this, we will see him in court,” Doniger said, adding that he believes Pruitt and the Trump administration's legal standing is uncertain.

According to Pruitt, the Clean Power Plan is now protected under the Clean Air Act and any attempt to repeal it would have to be matched with an adequate plan for replacement.

While Doniger is confident that the courts will uphold the Clean Power Plan, or that a future administration will work to restore the plan, he is also certain that the Mountain State must be helped into an economy centered around renewable energy.

“The path forward on clean energy is better for the economy,” Doniger said. “The people of West Virginia have the right to expect that the whole country will help this region and other coal regions to get a full share of a clean energy economy and we support that.” 

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