The Baffler
Tom Sexton,  December 11, 2018

Going in for the Shill

Time and again, Joe Manchin has proved himself disastrous on climate policy

The Baffler
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Let’s imagine for a second that the Democrats wreck the Republicans’ shop in 2020. Rising star of the left-leaning wing of the party, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now looks poised to pass a Green New Deal, even if it features some “common sense” concessions and a few too many mentions of “investments” for absolute comfort. Beto O’Rourke gets his coronation, having narrowly out-jousted Bernie in the primaries on fuckability alone, but he correctly reads the tea leaves and names the hardest-working man in poll business his running mate. They go on to topple Trump by, you know, making an appearance at a Packers game or something. Overall, the Dems defy the odds, overcome gerrymandering, and now control every level of government save for huge chunks of the judiciary that Schumer pissed away by running Trump’s picks through the express lane in the name of affability and a few extra days on the campaign trail. The Blue Wave reboot proves a bigger hit than the mixed results of the 2018 version; the dream of liberal democracy—complete with, perhaps, nicer banks willing to lend to 609 credit scores and renegotiated student loan terms that aim to ease the burden and unshackle our best and brightest—gets a stay of execution, and we give the rising tide of fascism the Heisman pose until at least 2022. From the Bernie left to those soaked in Obama nostalgia and/or pining for a return to the Clinton 90s, every Democrat winds up within a range of happy.

Yet even if this hypothetical fantasia of 2020 comes to pass, there will still be the matter of Democrats fucking around and letting one Joseph Manchin III, a lifelong shill for the likes of DuPont, Massey Energy, et al., become our bulwark against the nightmare future of rising, boiling seas as a ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It’s worth noting, should you be tempted to close this tab thinking Manchin’s record doesn’t apply to you, the fact that likely you, me, and most other Americans walking around have a toxic DuPont-produced chemical called C8 taking up residency in our tissues as I write. Above a certain threshold, C8 might lead to kidney cancer, or it might just cause your prostate to swell to the size of a regulation, tournament-legal bocce ball. When DuPont was ordered to pay $196 million in C8-related damages in 2008, then-governor Manchin filed an amicus brief urging the State Supreme Court to review the judgment—after conferring with DuPont executives. The guy who’s now poised to oversee energy and climate policy has cozied up to some of the most repugnant names in industry over the years, responsible not only for this C8 thing, but also cadmium, arsenic, and 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol spills, among other insults to West Virginia’s waterways that eventually find their way into the Ohio River and beyond.

That’s to say nothing of Manchin’s failures at home that don’t directly impact people outside the region. Manchin is a coal industry darling; in 2010, when he launched his bid for the Senate, he was the coal lobby’s number one recipient of campaign finance funds for either party, outpacing the nearest competitor by a margin of nearly six figures. Manchin is so sold-out to coal interests that when Obama rolled out his decidedly weak Clean Power Plan, which was riddled with loopholes in the form of excessive “flexibility” and timid emission targets for the worst offenders, Manchin was quick to denounce it as a symbolic gesture of his allegiance. During his re-election campaign this year, Manchin went so far as to praise Trump’s new energy policy and his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

We’re seeing younger miners in their fifties, forties, and even thirties landing on lung transplant lists.

But Manchin’s West Virginia—and for that matter every other state in Central and Southern Appalachia, where I’ve spent the overwhelming majority of my life—is currently in the throes of a black lung epidemic. The proliferation of mountaintop removal coal mining over the last few decades, where mountains are blasted open to reach the coal seams inside, has contributed to a rise in the number of deadly cases of the condition also known as Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis. In the past, before the devastating practice of surface mining supplanted underground mining as the most common extraction method, black lung was still rampant, but it was older miners in their seventies and eighties who tended to be diagnosed. Back then, coal dust was the principal irritant in the lungs, but with advancements in surface mining techniques, all sorts of rock dusts, metals, and other particles like silica are invading workers’ airways and rendering their respiratory systems ineffectual in much quicker fashion. Now, we’re seeing younger miners in their fifties, forties, and even thirties landing on lung transplant lists in the hope of extending their lives just a few extra years, as lung transplant recipients tend to be more vulnerable to complications in the years post-surgery than other organ transplant recipients. The damnedest thing about all of this is that black lung is completely preventable. It can be controlled by overhauling mine ventilation practices, ensuring workers wear the proper masks, and diligently monitoring coal dust—measures that American coal bosses, aided and abetted by the policies of legislators like Manchin, think run up their overhead costs too much.

If you’ve used electricity any time in the last several decades, these are just some of the very real human costs of keeping your lights on. There is no energy fairy; people die in this country, even to this day, to power the modern world—many of them in Joe Manchin’s own state. Paradoxically, these same people have been largely left behind by that modern world. It’s a common refrain, but it bears repeating that according to the latest U.S. census bureau statistics, a full sixteen of the fifty poorest counties by median household income in the country are part of the Appalachian region. If the policies of Joe Manchin, who has held higher office in West Virginia since 1982, having spent the last fourteen years as either Governor or Senator, or some of the other powerful coal state politicians—like my congressman, Hal Rogers, who was until recently head of the House Committee on Appropriations and holds the dubious distinction of having presided over the nation’s second poorest congressional district for nearly forty years—or even Mitch McConnell had made any progress toward changing the material circumstances of Appalachians, then surely to God there would be some evidence for it by now.

Manchin, though, is even more insidious than a McConnell or a Rogers—he often slips through the filter of liberal censure by virtue of the misguided notion that because he has a D beside his name, he’s inherently more principled than those aforementioned lawmakers. Picking up the “Maverick” mantle from the recently departed John McCain, Manchin also follows partly in the grand tradition of Bill Clinton, who made a career of being way too conciliatory to the right, gutting welfare, and spearheading the move away from entitlements to block grants—a move that has had damning long-term ramifications for my community and others like it.

There’s absolutely nothing in Manchin’s track record that suggests the Democrats can “Green Wash” him.

Manchin and his coal state ilk are content to lord over what are, in essence, resource colonies with readily available, cheap labor forces reeling from the effects of a decades-long assault on their health, finances, land, air, and water by coal companies. During Manchin’s term as governor of West Virginia alone, the mountain state saw two of the deadliest coal disasters in its history: the Sago explosion in 2006, which claimed twelve lives, and the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010, which killed twenty-nine miners and lead to a slap-on-the-wrist one-year prison sentence for then-CEO of the Massey Energy company Don Blankenship—who went on to run for the Republican Senate nomination less than a year after his release. Yet Manchin continues to hitch his wagon to a declining industry that has caused so much suffering and devastation to his region, and indeed, the planet, a pattern of behavior unbecoming of the person next in line to shape climate policy that will have very real implications for the fate of humankind.

There’s absolutely nothing in Manchin’s track record that suggests the Democrats can “Green Wash” him, despite what certain liberal pundits might have you believe. Though there have been rumblings of internal opposition to Manchin receiving the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top spot, other Democratic senators like Cory Booker and Chris Murphy have already given him their blasé seal of approval. Either way, Manchin is unlikely to be blocked, and his very presence in matters of import could derail anything approaching promising climate policy, like the Green New Deal, which already has a long way to go.

If Manchin’s loyalty to coal through easily avoidable disasters that claimed more than forty lives (many more, if you count black lung victims) or his wanton disregard for holding companies that routinely spilled chemicals in West Virginia’s watersheds accountable isn’t enough to disqualify him, then for fuck’s sake at least remember the time he declared it open season in West Virginia on cap and trade bills, rifle literally in hand.

Tom Sexton is the cohost of the Trillbilly Workers Party podcast and is based out of Whitesburg, Kentucky.

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