Reenergize Southwest Virginia Comments
My name is Austin Counts and I work with Appalachian Voices in Norton. I was in the last graduating class of Ervinton High School in Nora, and have been a lifelong resident of Southwest Virginia. I am also one of the many individuals looking to stay in the area. However, we cannot do that without the support for a fair and just transition in the region. We must have a way for our people and youth to make a living here while protecting our abundant resources for a diversified economy in Southwest Virginia.
By supporting renewable energy opportunities, like solar power, we can extend the potential for jobs in the region. So far this year, the Solar Energy Industries Association reported over 4,300 solar energy jobs in Virginia. However, with the clean economy act, we could see up to 29,000 solar jobs in the future. How many of those could be in Southwest Virginia if we had the right support? Solar Energy would invite new companies to the region and save our communities money to put towards food, infrastructure, education, and our many other community needs.
We also have to think about where all this new infrastructure for our transitioning economy can go. Through the region, we face issues with abandoned mine lands that present hazards to our communities, businesses, and economic opportunities. Finding a way to address these dangerous, polluting, and unproductive lands will be a vital part of our transition. Cleaning up abandoned mine lands will create immediate jobs for community members and new opportunities for land re-use in upcoming or existing industries. Figuring out how to fund the clean-up of these mine lands and re-use them will be critical to our community’s progress.
Beyond AML, the accessibility our communities have to their own nearby lands is severely limited. The excessive amounts of land owned by often out-of-state landholders has been an identified problem since the groundbreaking report Who Owns Appalachia, released in 1983. We are still trying to get the state to begin addressing this issue and get land back into community hands. This problem has reduced the amount of land available for economic development and recreation and shortchanged our communities of tax revenue for far too long.
Even though I can’t go into them in-depth myself, I don’t want to leave out all the other things we need to have viable communities. Things like increased healthcare opportunities, especially around those affected by the mining industry, black lung, and the opioid epidemic; support for our education systems; support for our basic family needs, like childcare and transportation; and the protection of our rarest economic resources, clean water, abundant forests, and diverse ecosystems.
I would like to end by saying that this cannot be the last time the Commonwealth reaches out to Southwest Virginia to see how our transition should or is taking place. We need to be a part of these decisions to make sure the support provided is really what our communities need and that can’t be done in just a few meetings. Without real community engagement, an equitable transition for our coal impacted communities cannot happen properly. Thank you again for your time here today and I look forward to hearing from you all again in the future.