Coal Country Environmentalist

A conversation with West Virginian Justice Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin

As a West Virginia coal miner’s daughter, for Paula Jean Swearengin labor and ecological issues are intricately tied. Born 1974 in Mullens, Swearengin was raised in a small town in Appalachia called Coal City. The name is fitting — in addition to her father, her stepfather, grandfather, and several uncles were also coal miners. They earned a living in in the mines, but the mines also took a steep toll on their health, as well as that of their community, waterways, and air.

photo of Paula Jean Swearengin
Justice Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin ran in the Democratic primary for US Senator for West Virginia earlier this year on a campaign that emphasized mining-related environmental issues in the state.

When she was 12 years old Swearengin moved to Yadkinville, North Carolina for a time, where her stepfather worked in a furniture factory and her mother found employment as a housekeeper in a nursing home. After earning a GED, she moved back to West Virginia, and was propelled into a life of activism by harsh conditions in the Mountain State. Earlier this year, she ran in the Democratic primary for US Senator for West Virginia as a “Justice Democrat,” pledging not to take donations from corporations and SuperPACs. Her rival was a king coal candidate, incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin, who supported Trump’s EPA candidate Scott Pruitt and withdrawing America from the Paris Climate Accord, and went on to become the sole Democrat to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court.

Swearengin didn’t win, though she did put up a good fight, earning 30 percent of the primary vote against a candidate with much more name recognition. Her insurgent candidacy demonstrates the dilemmas confronting progressive-minded reformers trapped by the strait jacket of America’s two-party system. Speaking with me by phone, she candidly discussed everything from black lung disease to mountaintop mining to her primary race. Oh, and her plans to run again in 2020.

When you grew up, what were West Virginia’s environmental issues and how did they affect you and your family?

Growing up in a coalmining family, my family dealt with the boom and the bust of the industry. When I was 12 years old … I knew what hunger was when my stepdad got laid off from the coalmines. That comes with a monolithic economy. The industrial revolution was built on the backs of coalminers, their families, and communities. These companies came in and left us breadcrumbs.

I buried my daddy to black lung cancer when he was 52 years old. My stepdad has heart disease and black lung. A lot of my uncles have black lung and actually this year, my uncle was diagnosed with cancer. He has black lung. This year alone I have buried three friends to cancer. I have an aunt who was buried this year to cancer [too].  

When I was a little girl, before my stepdad got laid off from the coalmines, our water was orange with a little purple film. It had black specks in it. We drank that water, bathed in it…. It was coming from an abandoned coalmine. We were drinking mine drainage. We also had a slate dump above our house that burned the whole time I was little. Slate is a byproduct of coal. It smelled like sulfur and would burn constantly.

I thought my hair was red until I was 12 years old. It was orange actually, from the water. When we moved to North Carolina I found out I was a brunette. We had clean water [there]. It was the first time in my life I could breathe actually. My mom always talked about us being sick all the time when we were little and when we moved to North Carolina things were better. All my children have asthma now, since I brought them back to [West Virginia]. I’ve felt lots of guilt as a mother to bring my children back. I didn’t realize the environmental damage until I came back home.

How is your health now?

I have stomach issues. Most of my family does, too. I was diagnosed with diverticulitis (an inflammation that can develop along the walls of intestines) last year.

These companies, like Massey Energy and [Governor] Jim Justice’s [mining companies],  when they came in and tried to bust our unions in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they were very irresponsible. They didn’t take care of workers’ safety and were not diligent about public health and safety. Lots of people live in impoverished conditions. We don’t have adequate broadband or sewage systems. There’s a lot of environmental damage, like with mountaintop removal, silica dust going into children’s lungs now. And a lot of water pollution, not only in our rivers and streams, but people that have well water, oftentimes the water comes out of their tap orange and black and is contaminated by chemicals such as selenium, magnesium, and arsenic. So, it’s a disgrace. We sacrificed to power this nation. But some people in this state don’t have something as basic as a clean glass of water.

What about fracking?

Traveling across the state, I found out there was a bill passed on the state level this year called the Co-Tenancy Bill [which allows property to be developed for oil or gas drilling when a 75 percent of the property’s owners agree to it]. The pipelines coming through these communities [are not bringing local] jobs. Pipeline companies travel with mobile workers — even if the jobs are local, they’re temporary. With the fracking and the pipelines, we’re having to deal with the environmental damage and water pollution.

In Webster County, these frack wells come in and pollute the water. In Ritchie County, where there is fracking, they’re doing the same thing to us that they did in the coalfields: polluting people’s water. They’re not diligent about public health and safety, and there’s noise damage, too.  People in those communities are being abused by these companies. We have all these abandoned mines — it’s scary with the methane in the abandoned mines. I wonder if they’ve done enough studies to figure out what’s going to happen if there’s an accident?

We’re going down the same path [with fracking] that we did in the coalfields. There’s no vision or outlook for economic diversity. Senator Manchin has signed on with China for the Appalachian Storage Hub [for hydrocarbon storage].  China is leading with renewables but they want to come here to put their toxic waste.

Often, there appears to be a conflict between jobs and keeping a safe, clean environment. How did the lack of a safe, clean environment lead to your becoming a social justice activist?

My neighbor’s children started getting cancer. [Since I moved back to West Virginia,] I’ve seen in my community that people still have polluted water like I did when I was little. Silica dust can travel five miles from a mountaintop removal site. And there’s one three miles from my house right now that’s putting silica dust in my kids’ lungs. I was sincerely disheartened and angered that the Democratic Party got behind Jim Justice, one of the biggest polluting, anti-union coal barons in West Virginia, and brought him into the Democratic Party. Joe Manchin recruited and campaigned for him. [Jim Justice was a Republican before he joined the Democratic Party. In 2017, he re-joined the Republican Party.]

You know, you can only take so much. As much as my family, friends, and neighbors have sacrificed to power this nation, we shouldn’t compete against each other for clean water and air and jobs. We can have [them all]. We can invest federal dollars into this state and states like ours and we can have renewables, we can manufacture those here, we can reclaim mountaintop removal sites with hemp. We have the potential for hydropower — this is the birthplace of rivers, for god’s sake. We can have agriculture. If we legalized cannabis on a state level and created a model like Colorado we would see economic growth within six to eight months. There’s no reason that we have to deal with a singular-based economy. Our largest industry actually is tourism — and who wants to come to West Virginia and tour a toxic waste dump?     

It’s said that in America, more people are employed by the solar industry than the coal industry. Could a green New Deal provide West Virginians with more jobs than coalmining does?

Absolutely. But I think we need to be diverse [economically]. And we have to clean up the mess and damage that’s been done here. West Virginians have been abused for the sake of industry.

What environmental organizations have you been involved with?

The Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and Keepers of the Mountains Foundation.

What were the results of West Virginia’s US Senate primary race last Spring?

We won 30 percent of the [Democratic Party] vote. We got almost 50,000 votes. It was the first time in 75 years that someone had gotten that many votes from a sitting incumbent. I got more votes than the Republican primary winner.

We got almost $300,000 in donations. I think [Senator Joe Manchin] spent about $2 million. My [funding] came from individual donations. His came from corporate and corporate PAC dollars — less than 2 percent was from individual donations. I think he got over $5 million in his campaign account.

On the statewide and national levels, how did the Democratic Party establishment treat you and your candidacy?

Not well, to be honest. We never even had an actual debate — they never hosted a debate. I reached out to Belinda Biafore, chair of the West Virginia [Democratic] party, and asked her to call me and she never did. They said they didn’t show bias. But there was a Rockefeller-Kennedy dinner that was supposed to be designed to be a fundraiser for the party, and they wouldn’t let me speak. They let [Manchin] speak, they put his flag out on the table. And Chuck Schumer came in and spoke on Joe Manchin’s behalf, and even told some of our volunteers in the crowd to volunteer for Joe Manchin.

I went to a Blue Wave dinner in the eastern panhandle and I was told I’d get an equal amount of time to speak. [Manchin] spoke as a keynote for 15 minutes. I got about six minutes to speak. When I went in they told me I could put my flag beside his on a table outside and when I walked in the room all of his postcards were sitting on the seats of the table. I asked if I could put out my sign on the table, too, and one of the organizers told me I could put mine outside. I kind of snarked at her so she finally let me put it on the table.

How much time did you spend during the primary fighting the Republicans and the establishment Democrats?

I really did not fight with the Republicans. I did have a few things to say about Don Blankenship [the former CEO of Massey Energy] — that was really hard, to see him run for office after the damage he’s done. Massey Energy not only killed 29 miners [in the 2010 explosion of one of its mines] — they killed 52 miners. [Organized labor says that since 2000, 52 miners have died in Massey mines.] Massey Energy had the worst safety record in our history. If I ran in the general I don’t think I would have had a hard time beating Republicans then.

They created a PAC within the Democratic Party to publicize Joe Manchin. It was hard to go against Joe Manchin with his name recognition — that was my biggest challenge in the campaign. I actually had lots of Republicans who changed party affiliation to vote for me. I labeled myself as a “progressive” — to me that only means progress. I don’t like dividing labels. We know [Republicans] Patrick Morrisey and Evan Jenkins and [Democrat] Joe Manchin were all funded by the same funders. So it doesn’t make a difference about party labels, they were owned by the corporations and Big Pharma. So people were very responsive to my campaign because it was people-funded. I think this state is open to the idea of the working class having working class representation. I campaigned on [the idea that] this nation was built by the people, for the people, of the people. People were very responsive — the biggest resistance I received was from the establishment Democrats.

You ran as a “Justice Democrat” in the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and spent lots of time fighting the party’s establishment. In the future, should left-leaning candidates just run as independents, or Greens, or as members of some other third party, or just start a new party — rather than waste time on the Democratic Party?

Well, what we’ve seen in this state since Joe Manchin was governor [in 2005 to 2010] is over 100,000 people leave the Democratic Party. This is a Democratic state. I know that people are sick of the two-party system. But then there are still lots of people who will vote Republican or Democrat. And in the primary here you had to vote the Democratic or Republican ticket. So until things change with the system I don’t know how a third party candidate [could win], how fair it would be for them in the election.

And I’d like to bring Democracy back to the Democratic Party, and eventually work on a post-partisan effort. So when voters go to the ballot box they can vote for their candidate   instead of being beholden to a party. But that’s not going to change overnight — it’s going to take lots of effort.

What are your future plans?

I plan on running in 2020.  I’m thinking about the US Senate again. But right now, to be honest, I sacrificed a lot for the campaign. I knew I’d be pushed out of my job as an accounting clerk and I was. So now I’m looking for employment. It’s hard to find a job here.

Anything you’d like to add?

We’ve lived under the narrative that this was a red state, and there was no hope for us. We’ve proven West Virginians want hope and are tired of voting for the lesser of two evils. Traveling around this state, knowing of the oppression and poverty, [seeing] the [opioid] addiction crisis and the environmental damage — out of that I’ve been humbled by West Virginians. Every community I went into, people were trying to bring betterment to our state, and so many people were united, despite the disparity here.    

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Learn more about Swearengin.

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