West Virginia delegates ask residents how to revitalize former coal towns

LOGAN, WV (WOWK) — Monday’s Coal Communities listening session in Logan attracted people like Manuel Ojeda, a former coal miner of 40 years who has no qualms saying how he really feels about the coal industry.

“They knew that if the people of West Virginia had an alternative, they wouldn’t go in those dark, dank, dangerous holes, but those were the only jobs available,” said Ojeda.

The listening session also attracted people like Joe Lycan, a geologist who is proposing a different type of mining in Southern West Virginia: rare earth mineral mining.

“Rare earth elements are critical for national defense and technology, for instance, computer chips, the aerospace industry — China has 90% of that market,” said Lycan.

The listening session was the first of a series being held by the House of Delegates Coal Community Working Group that will be held in towns impacted by the coal industry’s decline.

On Monday, lawmakers stressed to the audience that millions of dollars in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan and the EDA will be coming to coal communities in West Virginia and they want to hear from residents how to best use it.

“There are no Democrats tonight there are no Republicans in this room, just West Virginians who need your help,” said Delegate Ed Evans (D-Mcdowell) to the audience.

Evans said in order to avoid the evening becoming a political debate, the audience was divided into small discussion groups that would rotate every 30 minutes.

The delegates asked the groups questions like, ‘what are your strengths? what can we build on? how can we help you? what’s the most successful project you’ve worked on?’

The answers were many but included substance abuse rehabilitation, simplifying business license procedures, small-business grants, broadband, more vocational training for the young, more marketing for tourism and capitalizing off of the Hatfield McCoy trail system, land development, and better water and sewer infrastructure.

Delegate Mark Dean (R-Mingo) says the goal is to take all of the input received and pass actionable legislation in January at the State Capitol.

“Instead of just the politicians sitting around the table thinking of what was best, we wanted to go out and hear what the people in these impacted communities thought,” said Dean.

The next coal communities listening session is Wednesday at the Woodrow Wilson High School cafeteria in Beckley at 6 p.m.

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