CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh toured an underground coal mine for the first time, joining Sen. Joe Manchin at a northern West Virginia facility on Wednesday.
Walsh did his best to signal that Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration won’t be an enemy of the coal industry as he and Manchin visited American Consolidated Natural Resources’ Golden Ridge Portal Mine near Wheeling.
“It was quite the experience, I’ll tell you that,” Walsh said in a telephone interview on his way back to Washington, D.C.
Walsh described donning the proper safety equipment, taking an elevator ride down to the mine and then a mantrip ride by rail to the longwall to watch a machine grind and extract coal from the seam.
Walsh’s agency oversees the Mine Safety and Health Administration as well as the administration of benefits for coal miners disabled by black lung disease.
“I felt it was really important for me to go down and get a feel for what mine workers do,” Walsh said. “I have a different understanding and appreciation of the work.”
The mine was operated for years by Murray Energy Holdings, which emerged from federal bankruptcy protection under a new name and ownership group. St. Clairsville, Ohio-based American Consolidated is the largest privately owned U.S. coal operator.
West Virginia has lost thousands of jobs in the past decade as companies and utilities explore using other energy sources such as natural gas, solar and wind.
Democratic candidates for president have struggled in recent years to connect with voters in West Virginia, in part due to a push toward clean energy under the Obama administration. Still, despite his promises, coal did not come roaring back under President Donald Trump, though he again won the state of West Virginia in 2020 by an overwhelming margin in his unsuccessful bid for re-election.
Earlier this year, the United Mine Workers Union, the nation’s largest coal union, said it would accept Biden’s plan to move further away from coal and other fossil fuels in exchange for a “true energy transition” that includes thousands of jobs in renewable energy and spending on technology to make coal cleaner.
In June, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm joined Manchin, the only Democrat currently holding statewide elected office in West Virginia, on a tour to promote the Biden administration’s plans to involve the once-booming coal state in the development of clean energy.
Manchin said in a news release that he discussed with Walsh the impact that the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress would have. Manchin has vowed that as new energy opportunities emerge, West Virginia coal communities won’t be left behind, and he said he looks forward to working with Walsh to support and reinvest in them.
“I have always said the transition to a cleaner energy future must come from innovation, not elimination and the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate will do just that,” Manchin said.
Walsh said Manchin got that point across to him in their discussion about coal’s future.
“The president has goals of carbon neutrality and alternative energy sources,” Walsh said. “Certainly these conversations need to happen. We do have an industry where people are working in. They’re concerned about the future of their industry as well.”