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Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia who is the linchpin of his party’s climate agenda, made nearly $500,000 from one of the most polluting coal power plants in West Virginia last year alone.
According to his most recent financial disclosure, Manchin gained $492,000 last year due to his non-public shares in a coal company called Enersystems, which records show is a contractor for a power plant in the state’s north that burns waste coal.
Meanwhile, Manchin’s 2020 income for being a senator was $174,000. “He’s making more than twice as much selling coal as he is serving as a representative,” said Jim Kotcon, the conservation chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
Due to impurities in the waste coal Grant Town Power Plant burns to generate electricity, it releases more sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide per unit of energy than any of the state’s coal plants, according to 2018 calculations from Kotcon.
“In terms of both of those pollutants,” Kotcon told VICE News, “it’s still the dirtiest plant operating in West Virginia today.”
If that plant were shut down, the decrease in air pollution could potentially prevent 18 deaths, eight heart attacks, and 169 asthma attacks each year, data compiled by a research and advocacy group called Clean Air Task Force suggests. It would also halt over 900,000 tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions that Grant Town releases annually.
Despite the facility’s heavy pollution, Kotcon and other environmental advocates aren’t aware of any studies quantifying health impacts from the plant on the nearby community.
Sen. Manchin is linked financially to the Grant Town coal facility through Enersystems, which he founded in 1988. Enersystems signed a 2013 “Waste Fuel Services Agreement” with Grant Town’s operator, American Bituminous Power Partners, according to public records published on the media outlet Sludge. The agreement extends to March 21, 2023.
American Bituminous Power Partners did not respond to a VICE News request about the nature of the agreement with Enersystems.
Manchin gave control of Enersystems to his son back in 2000. He years ago moved his holdings in the company into a blind trust in order to comply with federal rules. Yet that doesn’t prevent him from personally profiting. Since becoming a Democratic U.S. senator in 2010, Manchin’s total Enersystems income has topped $4.5 million, according to Sludge calculations.
Manchin in the past has argued that his holdings in Enersystems have “absolutely not” affected his policy decisions. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Because Democrats only have the slimmest possible majority in the Senate, no legislation can pass without the support of Manchin, one of their most conservative senators. In addition, Manchin chairs the Senate energy and natural resources committee, which has huge influence over climate change and energy policy.
Manchin suggested this week he won’t vote for an infrastructure bill that could result in the biggest government spending on climate solutions in U.S. history unless Senate Republicans, some of whom deny that climate change is even real, are also happy with the plan.
Manchin in June told a utility conference he’s not a fan of President Joe Biden’s plan to address the climate emergency by cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and hitting 100 percent clean power in electric utilities by 2035.
“I am concerned the timetable they are setting is a very aggressive timetable,” Manchin said.
Earlier this month, Manchin claimed government plans to phase out the most environmentally damaging forms of energy would have no positive impact on climate change.
“They’re eliminating fossils, which is very, very disturbing, because if you’re sticking your head in the sand, and saying that fossil [fuel] has to be eliminated in America, and they want to get rid of it, and thinking that’s going to clean up the global climate, it won’t clean it up all,” he told CNN.
It might seem like a conflict of interest that Manchin is publicly opposing climate policy while annually earning six figures from an especially dirty form of energy, but he doesn’t appear to be breaking any rules.
“While congressional ethics rules may limit direct compensation for being an officer or director in a public company,” former Senate counsel Tyler Gellasch explained recently, “they generally don’t prohibit members from owning or having significant roles in ongoing businesses, even businesses that may benefit directly from the government.”
Yet the optics in Manchin’s situation aren’t great, say environmental advocates.
“He comes from the coal industry, and then he became a powerful politician,” said Mike Ewall, founder of the grassroots organization Energy Justice Network. “Of course it’s a concern.”
Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year Joe Manchin became senator.