The Clinch Coalition was formed in 1998 when local citizens coalesced to reduce a major timber sale proposed near the Bark Camp recreation area in the Clinch Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest. The Clinch Coalition is composed of local residents who are passionate about preserving our environment.
We thank Governor Northam and leaders in the General Assembly for this opportunity to offer recommendations on how the Commonwealth can provide economic transition support to the coalfield region. The Clinch Coalition supports economic and environmental sustainability for Southwest Virginia.
We are a community-based, environmental organization that believes in the importance of appreciating, understanding, and protecting our land – the mountains high and the valleys low, the streams, creeks and rivers, and the plants and animals that are integral to our lives in one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. We feel that doing so is essential to improving our quality of life and well-being.
Our comments will focus on the six areas identified by the Commonwealth - workforce redevelopment, economic diversification, reclamation of coal-impacted lands and brownfields, community revitalization, infrastructure improvements, and clean energy development. These are not stand-alone issues, they are interwoven and aspects of the total effort needed to Reenergize Southwest Virginia.
Throughout our comments, the underlying recommendation is to trust and support the people and the long-standing educational and economic efforts of many local leaders and organizations. We do not need a top-down approach, we need a partnership and the support of state officials to understand and address the unique problems of the far southwestern region of the Commonwealth. We say again, we appreciate this listening approach led by DMME.
Workforce Redevelopment and Economic Diversification
These of course go hand in hand. As the economy moves from extractive industries, targeted training and retraining of workers are needed. Foremost should be the retraining of coal miners. For example, as solar energy becomes more available, support Mountain Empire Community College and Southwest Virginia Community College in their on-going solar energy training programs. As ecotourism is developed, look not only to the small businesses this generates but also consider the training needs for hospitality training in restaurant, lodging, recreation and associated businesses. Another critical area is the training needs for healthcare workers from all disciplines: nursing, medicine, pharmacists, physical therapy, occupational therapy and respiratory therapy. Most have the potential to begin training at our local community colleges or four-year colleges. The COVID pandemic is having a huge impact in our area and continues to strain our healthcare professions. As our current workers move out of these professions, it will be critical to have appropriately trained individuals to take their place.
The Clinch Coalition supports economic development efforts that are crafted with environmental sustainability in mind and that follow established state and federal regulations to ensure that development efforts minimize unnecessary environmental impacts. We also believe in maximizing transparency and public involvement throughout the planning process to ensure that economic development efforts can proactively identify and minimize risks to the region's sensitive and nationally significant natural resources and underrepresented human populations.
Reclamation of Coal-impacted Lands and Brownfields
A tragic legacy of the coal mining industry is the destruction of our mountains and mined lands being abandoned, leaving the cleanup to the taxpayers. Thus, the funding of reclamation and reforestation on formerly mined lands and other brownfields across Southwest Virginia is an important part of the region’s economic transition and ecological protection effort. The state should work aggressively with our Senators and Representatives to pass the ReClaim Act and the Abandoned Mine Land reauthorization to obtain federal funds to reclaim these ecological hazards and scars on our lands. In turn these efforts provide additional job opportunities. When DMME processes all permits for mining and gas wells they should implement stringent mitigation, monitoring and enforcement protocols because of the far-ranging environmental impacts caused by mining and drilling activities.
Community Revitalization and Infrastructure Improvements
Often what comes to mind when hearing community revitalization is a vibrant downtown. Infrastructure improvements are roads and bridges, water and sewer systems, and broadband. All are important. As of this writing the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure plan will soon be law to provide much needed funding to localities. The Northam administration has already committed to state-wide broadband with funds from the federal Rescue Plan. But revitalization of communities is much more. It is having available and affordable housing, transportation, childcare, healthcare and addressing our opioid epidemic. Infrastructure includes meeting the basic services needed by the population.
Environmental justice is critical to community revitalization. Thirty percent or more of the land in the Coalfield Counties is owned by large, mostly absentee corporations who have held these lands for over a century. The land is scarred from the extractive industries of mining and logging, often nonproductive, unavailable for sustainable agriculture and new infrastructure such as solar farms, and does not provide a fair share of local taxes. The state should support optional taxation categories to address this long-standing injustice.
Clean Energy Development
The world has received a “Code Red” for global climate change from the United Nations. The Clinch Coalition supports the science-based definition of climate change and that the ability to mitigate human influences on climate begins locally. Alternative energy sources and intact forest habitats are needed for the preservation of biological diversity, the reduction of carbon emission and carbon sequestration. The Clinch-Powell river watersheds and High Knob Landform of the Upper Tennessee River basin, along with adjacent Pine Mountain, are important regional and nationally significant biodiversity hotspots that offer the best opportunity for local climate change mitigation. It is important to promote policies that protect standing woodlands on national, state and private lands for carbon storage.
We support the continued and expanded development of a renewable energy industry in the region. Solar energy, with the formation and leadership of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, is making inroads on bringing solar energy to local businesses, educational facilities and residents. The state should support the development of “shared solar.”
Alternative energy development must happen in a way that preserves our natural environment by leaving existing forest lands intact to mitigate carbon emissions. Thus, funding and incentivising this development on local abandoned mine lands, former strip mines, and other mining or brownfield features is imperative to the energy transition in Virginia. Additionally, the state should research additional potential opportunities for renewable energy development in the region such as micro-hydro, wind, and geothermal.
The Clinch Coalition supports sustainable actions in Southwest Virginia that generate social, economic, and environmental benefits that protect, promote and preserve our region for the well-being of present and future generations.