West Virginians Gear Up for “Coal Baron Blockade” at Joe Manchin’s Coal Plant

Activists with West Virginia Rising blockade the entrance to Sen. Joe Manhin's family business at the Grant Town Power Plant on April 9, 2022. Sixteen were arrested.
Activists with West Virginia Rising blockade the entrance to Sen. Joe Manhin’s family business at the Grant Town Power Plant on April 9, 2022. Sixteen were arrested.

Since Sen. Joe Manchin has blockaded Democrats’ landmark Build Back Better climate and jobs legislation, at least 400 West Virginians and allied activists say they are planning to return the gesture in kind by blockading Senator Manchin’s family business at the Grant Town Power Plant on Saturday, April 9.

Dozens of activists, working in coalition under the banner West Virginia Rising and with support from organizations like Rising Tide North America, are planning to risk arrest by blocking traffic to the 80-megawatt, coal-fired plant in Grant Town, West Virginia. Senator Manchin makes nearly $500,000 per year from his family business Enersystems, Inc., which sells coal gob to the Grant Town Power Plant. Senator Manchin’s son, Joseph Manchin IV, runs the company.

Manchin founded Enersystems, a Fairmont, West Virginia-based coal brokerage firm, in 1988. He reported making $5.6 million off company stock from 2010 to 2020 — all while working to protect the coal industry and gut critical environmental laws to increase his own revenues as part of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he has chaired since February 3, 2021.

He even worked to keep the Grant Town plant in business when he was governor of West Virginia in 2006 by arranging for lobbyists from Mon Power, which purchases energy from the plant, to petition the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) to raise rates on residents.

The West Virginia senator has denied that his coal interests influence his policymaking and has declined to divest his holdings, saying that because his ownership is held in a blind trust, which gives a separate trustee control of holdings, it doesn’t violate congressional ethics rules or the law. But documents filed by the senator show the blind trust is too small to account for all his reported earnings from Enersystems, and, the PSC, under then-Governor Manchin, effectively saved the company’s contract by agreeing to raise rates in 2006.

Moreover, the coal company is far from Manchin’s only fossil fuel entanglement. The senator remains the top recipient of campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry among Congress members, collecting nearly $743,000 in the current election cycle. In the Democrats’ narrowly controlled, 50-50 Senate, Manchin has gained almost total control over the future of the nation’s energy and climate policy amid the escalating planetary emergency and urgent need to achieve energy independence from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

In the time since Manchin killed Biden’s Build Back Better bill on Fox News in December, he has sunk climate finance proponent Sarah Bloom Raskin’s nomination to become Federal Reserve’s vice chair of supervision, and called for using the Defense Production Act to not only greenlight the 25 coal plant-equivalent Mountain Valley Pipeline through West Virginia but also to fast-track permitting of fracked gas export terminals and leasing public lands for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Manchin has also encouraged oil and gas executives to seek a “return on investment” from politicians who solicit what he called “mother’s milk,” or campaign donations. He even coached oil and gas executives ahead of their testimony on rising gas prices Wednesday before members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

West Virginia Rising organizers call Manchin’s actions some of the most flagrant and nakedly corrupt conflicts of interest in United States history. David Scott, a primary organizer of Saturday’s “Coal Baron Blockade” who lives in Fairmont, the seat of Marion County, where the Grant Town plant is located, tells Truthout that Manchin and his family have “fleeced” the state of West Virginia through their business ventures and obstruction of policies that would alleviate poverty in the state.

“Here he is, sitting on the chairmanship of the U.S. Senate Energy Committee — probably, aside from president of the United States, the most powerful position to be in if you’re dealing with fossil fuels — and he’s treating that position like an ATM. He’s getting very wealthy from his own influence,” Scott says. “The people who live in the shadow of [Manchin’s Grant Town] plant could use a fraction of [his profits]…. He’s living a lavish lifestyle while people in West Virginia are worried about how far away their children are going to go when they come of age.”

Scott points to the Manchin family’s long history of wrongdoing in the state: In addition to Manchin’s direct role in denying West Virginians the child tax credit as well as federal benefits to disabled West Virginia coal miners; Senator Manchin’s uncle, Antonio James Manchin, resigned his position as state treasurer in 1989 after his impeachment by the state House of Delegates over his mismanagement of investments that lost the state $279 million in 1987.

Meanwhile, Senator Manchin’s daughter, Heather Bresch, stepped down as CEO of pharmaceutical giant Mylan amid a lawsuit over her role in helping fix and then gouge the price of epinephrine, the lifesaving medication used to make EpiPens. Bresch walked away with a $37.6 million exit package, helping shutter the company’s Morgantown, West Virginia, plant on her way out — taking more than 1,400 United Steelworkers jobs and a separate $30.8 million “golden parachute” payout with her.

She also lied about her credentials: Shortly after Bresch was named Mylan’s CEO in October 2007, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation revealed that West Virginia University administrators had fabricated grades to help her meet the requirements to obtain a master’s degree in business administration. The investigation led to multiple resignations from the university’s senior leadership, who Manchin oversaw as governor at the time.

This history is why West Virginia organizers are putting their bodies on the line to demand Senator Manchin redress his family’s harms to the state by divesting his family’s fossil fuel and corporate conflicts of interest. Activists are also calling on Manchin to directly support life-affirming social spending in West Virginia as well as a robust transition to clean energy.

“Joe Manchin has spent his career making a very lucrative living off the backs of West Virginians while talking about how resilient we are. West Virginians are tired of struggling only to see others prosper. We deserve opportunities to build a future that our kids can be proud of,” said West Virginia Rising organizer Maria Gunnoe, who is descended from the Cherokee Nation and from West Virginia coal miners.

Organizers are also highlighting the plant’s direct harms to the surrounding community’s health: The Grant Town plant consumes at least 550,000 tons of a particularly dirty form of coal waste each year. The plant is so dirty that, according to an analysis of data from a federal health risk assessment tool by the Clean Air Task Force, its emissions result in at least 18 deaths, 8 heart attacks, 2 hospitalizations, 169 asthma attacks and 860 work-loss days per year.

The Grant Town plant isn’t even a good deal for ratepayers — something an executive from FirstEnergy Service Company, which contracts with the plant through its subsidiary, Mon Power, admitted to West Virginia energy regulators last year. Mon Power’s purchase agreement with the plant resulted in a $117.1 million loss from 2016 to 2021. Customers are paying the difference between the higher cost of generating energy at the plant and the lower price for which that energy is sold to the market. The deal ends in 2036.

Meanwhile, Senator Manchin has continued to generate personal revenue from the plant and has used his position as a swing vote in the Senate to kill the Build Back Better’s Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have benefited ratepayers by encouraging utilities like Mon Power to transition to more efficient, clean energy.

Still, Manchin has recently indicated his willingness to reopen talks on a smaller, party-line reconciliation package that would use the budget process to circumvent a Republican filibuster. His legislative framework would address the climate crisis using tax breaks to push up to $550 billion in clean energy technology subsidies while also rolling back Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts and reforming prescription drug pricing. Under his plan, half of the revenue generated would go toward reducing the federal deficit and inflation.

While Manchin hasn’t explicitly said he would hold climate provisions hostage to pro-fossil fuel policies, that remains a likely scenario as he continues to pressure the Biden administration to use the Defense Production Act to achieve his fossil fuel wish list. Some progressives are already warming to these demands, which they see as the only way to get at least some of their major domestic priorities done before the midterm election.

West Virginia Rising’s Scott, who teaches fourth graders in Morgantown, remains skeptical of Manchin’s floated framework. “Manchin has made a career out of playing every side of the political spectrum,” he says. “He’ll call himself a Democrat when it’s convenient, and then he’ll take a shotgun and a TV ad and blow away another Democratic presidential proposal. He talks out of both sides of his mouth, and the proof is in the pudding.”

Tomorrow’s blockade comes on the heels of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new report, issued Monday, which outlined a dire warning that global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025 in order to keep planetary warming to the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The report makes clear that technologies and policies necessary to adequately address the climate emergency exist, and that the only real obstacles to mitigation are political will and fossil fuel interests. The report also saw the IPCC join the International Energy Agency in declaring that no new fossil fuel infrastructure should be built — a remarkable first in the IPCC’s 34-year history.

While the role of the fossil fuel industry is highlighted throughout the nearly 3,000-page-long report, it was conspicuously absent from the IPCC’s more high-profile “Summary for Policymakers.” An earlier draft of the summary leaked to the Guardian, however, described the fossil fuel industry and others as “vested interests” that have undermined climate policy. As the Guardian reports, representatives from Saudi Arabia pushed to weaken language on shutting down fossil fuel extraction, according to leaked reports.

West Virginia Rising’s Scott told Truthout that Senator Manchin is exactly the kind of “vested interest” erased from the IPCC report’s Summary for Policymakers. This week’s report, he says, underscores the need to engage in civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action to pressure power brokers at the intersection of politics and business.

“In Fairmont last year, and all over the eastern seaboard, we could see the smoke from the Pacific Northwest [wildfires] that were 2,000 miles away. The smoke was so thick that I had to break my asthma inhaler out,” Scott tells Truthout of the IPCC report’s recent warning about the escalating planetary crisis. “We watched the sun disappear in the sky hours before sunset, behind grey smoke.”

Saturday’s blockade will also culminate a week of action organized by the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, which is hosting a 23-mile march in the state from Harpers Ferry to Martinsburg this week. On Wednesday, the march stopped in Ranson, West Virginia, to protest the Danish-owned Rockwool International insulation plant. The toxic plant is located across the street from a local elementary school and within two miles of five other schools and daycare centers.

Organizers with the Poor People’s Campaign plan to rally at Senator Manchin’s local office in Martinsburg early Saturday before supporting West Virginia Rising’s blockade in Grant Town that afternoon. On Sunday, Poor People’s Campaign national co-chairs, Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis will give a Palm Sunday service across the street from the Grant Town coal plant. The West Virginia actions are among several that will lead up to a massive low-wage workers March on Washington on June 18.

Stewart Acuff, a retired union organizer who lives in Jefferson County and works with West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, told Truthout that residents in Jefferson County worked for four years to try to stop the construction of the Rockwool plant, which is located in a low-wage, working-class community of color.

“Of course we understand environmental racism, we understand where they put these noxious, poisonous factories, and that’s where working families live. So we’re fighting to shut that down,” Acuff says. He likewise points out that Rockwool is one of the few companies that has continued to keep its Russian factories open amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

West Virginia Rising’s Scott and others participating in Saturday’s blockade say they want a just transition to green energy union jobs for coal miners as well as programs that would put people to work cleaning up mining waste across the state.

“There’s a misconception that people in West Virginia are sort of monolithically behind the fossil fuel industry,” Scott says. “There are a lot of people who are, but that is driven out of fear…. The people of West Virginia want hope.”