CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Paula Jean Swearengin spent the first 12 years of her life in Wyoming County before moving to North Carolina. She said she still remembers the color of the water she drank and bathed in prior to her move.
“Our water was orange with a blue or purple film. People called it ‘copper water’ back then,” she said. “Later it was tested, and it was acid mine drainage.
“I thought my hair was red until I was 12 years old.”
Swearengin — whose grandfather, father, stepfather and uncle were coal miners — said coal mining has been damaging to her family and communities across the state.
“I’ve seen the regression, the boom and bust,” she said. “I’ve buried a lot of my family members because of coal. If they are still around, they are suffering from black lung.”
Swearengin moved back to West Virginia in 2001 after her grandfather was diagnosed with black lung disease. That spurred Swearengin to researching and advocating against mountaintop removal, going to political town halls and reaching out to elected officials about providing clean resources.
All of this led to Saturday when the 43-year-old, single mother-of-four Swearengin was handing out fliers and knocking on doors in Charleston as part of a canvassing event for her 2018 U.S. Senate campaign. Swearengin said after years of advocacy, something else had to be done.
“It’s gone on deaf ears,” she said. “We’ve had community support, but we haven’t had any support from our leadership.”
One of those political leaders is Sen. Joe Manchin, who Swearengin is challenging for the Democratic nomination.
“He’s made it clear that he serves the coal industry and not coal miners and their communities,” she said. “It’s obvious that our leaders are not going to do anything and when coal is gone, we really don’t have a plan B. We deserve a diverse and equal and fair economic infrastructure.”
Manchin and Swearengin have crossed paths before; when he was governor, Swearengin said she raised concerns directly to him regarding water quality in the state. After Manchin was elected to the Senate in 2010, Swearengin continued adding pressuring, attending forums and similar events Manchin held across the state.
That includes a town hall last March in South Charleston. Swearengin said she only knew about the town hall an hour before it began, and drove 75 minutes from her Coal City home to attend. She stood in line next to a coal miner waiting to talk to Manchin.
“When I got up to talk to him and I told him we deserve clean and safe jobs, he tried to put the coal miners and the crowd against me, saying we would have to agree to disagree,” Swearengin recalled.
“My family has died to power this nation, and he acted like he was immune and angered because we were begging for clean water.”
Swearengin said she has not contacted Manchin’s office since, adding there is no use after so many attempts.
Swearengin launched her campaign on May 9 in a Facebook video. In the video, she talks about the dangers of the state’s economy being based heavily on coal.
“We have to invest in ourselves, and we have to fight back,” she said.
Swearengin was then contacted by Brand New Congress, a political action committee formed by volunteers and staffers from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. The Independent Senator won West Virginia’s Democratic Primary, beating eventual candidate Hillary Clinton 51 percent to 36 percent.
Swearengin is one of 14 candidates the organization is supporting, and the only Senate candidate currently under its banner.
At the canvass Saturday, volunteers were wearing purple shirts with Brand New Congress’ logo, which underneath read “Paula Jean 2018 for U.S. Senate, West Virginia.”
Justice Democrats, another political action committee, is also supporting the ticket.
Swearengin said she is not “against the coal miner,” but rather the silence regarding coal mining’s effects and its future. In the state’s current Democratic Party, however, she has not found a leader to guide West Virginia to a post-coal economy.
“Ken Hechler was a true public leader, a true Democrat,” she said. “He protested against mountaintop removal. He got arrested for West Virginia. He was a true public servant, and I admire him for that.”
Hechler died in December 2016 at the age of 102. Prior to his death, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as West Virginia Secretary of State. He was arrested in 2009 with 29 other marchers protesting coal mine sludge ponds in Boone County.
Another person Swearengin said she admired was Sanders, who she met during a March 2017 visit to McDowell County. She was seen Sunday at a Charleston rally Sanders spoke at regarding the Senate Republican health care legislation draft.
“Paula Jean 2018!” some yelled before Sanders took the stage, resulting in some audience members applauding.
Swearengin said Saturday she felt Sanders had real solutions to address the United States’ prominent concerns.
“People voted for (President) Donald Trump because they are desperate to feed their children, but (Sanders) was the only one giving us real promises,” she said.
She added while Trump has repeatedly offered to bring back mining jobs, getting rid of regulations like the Stream Protection Rule is not the best solution.
“People will die from that. People will get cancer from that,” she said. “And what do we have to offer people? Still no jobs.”
Chuck Nelson was one of the dozen volunteers who walked door-to-door Saturday. A former coal miner who spent 29 years underground, he argued something has to be done regarding coal.
“I know how these companies and politicians treat the miners and the people of West Virginia,” he said. “Joe Manchin is a friend of the industry. He likes to paint the picture like he cares for the miner.”
Nelson said he met Swearengin through mountaintop removal activism.
“I remember when she first came on board and started this fight with us,” he said. “Paula has just turned into one of those leaders not only in our community but everywhere she goes.
“She cares about people and the future of West Virginia.”
Swearengin said like Hechler someone needs to stand up for the average West Virginian.
“He was a hellraiser, and that’s the thing our leadership needs to know,” Swearengin said. “We have fought generation after generation of labor struggles. It’s not going to end in this generation. I’m a hellraiser, too, and I’m going to fight back.”
Swearengin is not the first person to announce their 2018 plans; Manchin and Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., have announced plans to run for Senate.
Former coal miner Bo Copley released a video in announcing May his intention to capture the Republican nomination, and an official campaign kickoff is scheduled for Monday.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in early June a decision regarding plans to challenge Jenkins and Copley will come in the next two months.