Mon. Nov 29th, 2021

The emergence of Joe Manchin as a key player in democratic politics in 2021 is the result of a perfect storm for the US senator from West Virginia.

His position as the Senate’s most conservative Democrat means he often has the last word on what his party is capable of pushing through, especially when it comes to Joe Biden’s ambitious domestic policy agenda on infrastructure, far-reaching social policy and a vigorous attempt to tackle the climate. crisis.

A drive through the West Virginia landscape – which is still enthusiastic Donald Trump land – reveals a patchwork of communities hit by the climate crisis and barely held together by deteriorating infrastructure. Yet Manchin – at a cost of $ 3.5 million on Biden’s reconciliation bill – is busy trying to remove many of the policies that would try to tackle these crises that so severely affect many of his fellow West Virginia people.

West Virginia, a landlocked state, leads the country in the number of infrastructure facilities – hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, power plants – located on land exposed to severe flooding. It even beats Louisiana and Florida. Naturally, the climate crisis is causing floods to hit record levels across the United States.

In addition to the inspiration for John Denver’s hit song, West Virginia’s country roads are actually a source of fear and frustration for residents. Nearly half of the roads in the state are routinely affected by severe flooding.

When power outages – some of the longest and most frequent in the country – hit the state, they are often fatal, a reality became clear when a single flood event in 2016 took power to over half of the state’s homes, killing 23 people in 12 hours.

Earlier this year, tens of thousands of people were left without power for more than two weeks in freezing temperatures as ice storms felled trees on power lines across the state and closed roads.

But for many West Virginia residents, the reality of floods and infrastructure failures is more insidious than isolated events.

For Jill Hess, trying to get back to Fairmont, her hometown, and Joe Manchin’s birthplace every time there is talk of a storm. For the past five years, Hess has made it a priority to make sure her mother, Sue Hess, who survived on oxygen concentrators, was not stranded powerless and alone.

“Every time it rained or snowed, she really went into a state of panic.”

Jill said interruptions were not frequent while growing up. But as her mother got older and weaker, so did the power grid.

Despite spending over a billion dollars trying to prevent the network from failing, the frequency and duration of outages have steadily increased as the earth’s temperature has risen, prompting places like West Virginia to experience increased storm activity.

“I can not tell you how many times she would say, ‘I need you to be ready and available if something happens because we have a warning of severe thunderstorms.'”

Jill jumped into her car to drive towards her mother, addicted to oxygen machines, in the Fairmont. But with storms in West Virginia come road closures, closing the most direct route to a given location. Adding 15 minutes to being redirected around a mountain felt like 15 hours for Jill to know that her mother was running out of oxygen.

For Jill, there is a cruel irony about how her mother spent her last years. Sue had been a home nurse and traveled across the county to help people who could not get to the hospital. In 1968, she traveled to nearby Farmington, the city of 375 people, to care for wounded survivors of the Farmington mine disaster. In the 1985 floods that killed 38 people across the state, Sue had gone from house to house, helping to provide medical care and supplies to families whose livelihoods had been ruined by floods.

Now, despite retiring to a lovely home less than a mile from the same hospital where she had completed her nursing program, Sue found herself helpless. She relied on a combination of asking her daughter to drive in and call 911 to get her ambulance ride to a place where she could breathe.

A flooded baseball field in Milton, West Virginia, in March.  Floods are more and more common in the state.
A flooded baseball field in Milton, West Virginia, in March. Floods are more and more common in the state. Photo: Ryan Fischer / AP

Before she died, Sue received a four-digit ambulance bill almost every time the power went out.

“They would literally park her in the waiting room of the emergency room on oxygen until it was clear that the power was coming.” The average power outage in the state lasts for 11.4 hours – the second highest in the country.

The five years of unnecessary suffering her mother suffered before she died in December come down to infrastructure for Jill. What she finds particularly frustrating is that Manchin is not detached from this reality – it is the one he grew up in. Before he was a politician, the Hess family used to get Christmas cards from the Manchins.

Jill has no doubt that Manchin knows exactly how harsh climate change is making life for the people he grew up around.

National news media have been quick to connect the financial dots on Manchin. Clean energy initiatives can affect his bottom line in several ways because that bottom line is connected at the hip to one of the biggest driving forces behind climate change in the world: the fossil fuel industry.

In short, the U.S. senator is blocking legislation that would demand better from the dirty energy companies that make up his investment portfolio and his 2022 election cycle contributor list. And he makes it the environmental, social and economic damage to his state.

According to a report by the West Virginia Climate Alliance, efforts to address climate change, such as the Green New Deal, which Manchin has opposed, would create 10 million jobs nationwide and introduce rules that could clean West Virginia’s notoriously polluted waterways – a byproduct of the state’s dependence on coal.

Manchin’s own coal company, which he formed before taking office, has earned him $ 5.2 million in dividends over the past 10 years. Manchin has also received more money from oil and gas companies than any other senator in next year’s election.

As Manchin has become richer, his state has become warmer. The decline in cold snaps throughout the year could, according to the Climate Alliance report, lead to a spread of invasive plant species and a significant increase in ticks transmitting Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

But putting personal profits over his own party and its environmental initiatives is hardly new to Manchin. In fact, it is a fundamental part of the story behind his takeover.

Before he was the biggest single source of frustration for Democrats in America, he showed West Virginia that he would rather work with Republicans against his own party than support something resembling environmentalism.

In 1996, Charlotte Pritt beat Manchin in the Democratic primary for governor – the only person who to this day has given him a defeat in an election. But Pritt stood up as an environmentalist, urging West Virginia to develop industries that were not centered on polluting the earth and creating deplorable working conditions.

Water seeping from an abandoned mine on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.  Seventy percent of the state's waterways are too polluted to support 'natural biological function'.
Water seeping from an abandoned mine on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. Seventy percent of the state’s waterways are too polluted to ‘support the natural biological function’. Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Shortly after losing to Pritt, Manchin sent 900 letters to top Democrats around the state, in which he said he would not support Pritt because she was not “interested in the concerns of moderate and conservative Democrats.” Instead, Manchin’s letter added that he would support the Republican candidate, Cecil Underwood. Underwood won.

But two decades later, economists and climate scientists have sided with Pritt, not Manchin, over what is best for the state.

A 2019 report from the West Virginia Center for Budget & Policy highlighted the dangers of the state continuing to depend on its “rich non-renewable depleting natural resources” because it made terrible economic sense. Lack of diversification of the economy, the author wrote, perpetuates only the boom and bust economies that have plagued the state and puts it on a “collision course with efforts to combat climate change.”

Nicolas Zégre, a hydrologist at West Virginia University, agrees that there is a false dichotomy in which economic progress is erroneously set against the fight against climate change. Zégre, who is researching flood risk vulnerability in West Virginia, actually said that it is the opposite: the state and its already struggling economy cannot afford to continue to be affected by climate change.

“What are our elected representatives doing to protect the West Virginians? The answer is very little.”

For Zégre, the way forward for Manchin and anyone who claims to represent the interests of West Virginia is to invest in a sustainable and clean version of what this state could be, adding “none of this is going to happen before our decision makers, first of all, recognize that climate change is happening ”.

An example of how Zégre sees the state positioning itself for both economic diversification and a shift towards mitigating climate change is by cleaning its waterways – 70% of which are too dirty to “support the natural biological function”.

A shift to clean water, according to Zégre, would create a way for West Virginia to supply even more water than it does for the surrounding states, a practice that will only increase in value as climate change causes unprecedented droughts.

Zégre urges West Virginia politicians, especially Manchin, to realize how vulnerable their state is to the reality of climate change.

“We have so many options, yet many of our leaders are looking backwards for a model for what the future should be.”

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