As the tide changes in Congress, public policy advocates, environmental experts and residents of Appalachia made their cases to one of Ohio’s U.S. senators to do more on climate change and the Appalachian business infrastructure.

Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown will chair the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs after the Congressional majority party flips. He has already pledged a new focus on the climate and business as part of the committee’s priorities.

In a discussion hosted by the collaborative Reimagine Appalachia, consultants from the environmental, economic and manufacturing sectors all advised Brown on ways in which re-training of workers coming out of industries like the coal market, and increased investment in Appalachia would improve America’s standing as a whole.

“Appalachia has long fueled the prosperity for the rest of the nation, while itself has suffered in poverty, exploited by absentee corporations in the extractive industries,” said Amanda Woodrum, of Policy Matters Ohio and Reimagine Appalachia.

Woodrum said manufacturing is a critical piece of the climate change debate, but has been overlooked in the past. Brown agreed, also saying climate change is part of a host of issues — including systemic racism and wealth inequality — affecting and exploiting workers.

“For decades, we’ve seen what Big Oil and big energy companies have done to ignore or discredit the whole science and the issues of climate change,” Brown said. “At the same time they’ve continued the exploitation of workers.”

Brown said the discussions being had at the state level on what needs to be done not only to help the workers displaced by lost jobs in mining and manufacturing, but also in impacting the climate with new jobs and industries are the result of environmental changes every year.

“We see the algae blooms in Lake Erie getting worse, threatening drinking water, we see farmers dealing with ever more uncertain growing seasons, we see invasive species threatening our forests in Southeast Ohio,” Brown said.

Participants in the discussion talked about reclamation of broken down steel mills and facilities in the Mahoning Valley that are now being used for job training and research and development.

Kristen Olmi, chief economic development officer for KO Consulting in northeast Ohio said a 6,000 sq. ft. former steelmaking plan in Struthers is now a part of study of hemp as a building material and economic driver.

Some success in hemp growth has happened in Geauga and Portage counties, Olmi said, but Ohio is behind in the hemp industry because of a lack of grants and funding resources available for hemp industry development.

One of the more specific ways in which infrastructure development was recommended to happen was through electric vehicle manufacturing, something Kristin Dziczek, of the Center for Automotive Research said Ohio is already primed to do.

Dziczek said the center’s research showed that by 2025, 214 electrified vehicles will be manufactured in the state, and two-thirds of electric vehicles will be made in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

“Ohio’s electric vehicle output is going to grow 226% between now and 2025,” Dziczek said.

Ohio currently stands as the third largest vehicle and parts manufacturing state, with nearly 90,000 workers in the industry, according to the research firm. But the forecasted increases would demand even more investment, locally and federally.

“Supporting the growth in electric vehicle production is going to require a massive expansion of the North American supply chain that are now largely sourced from China, South Korea and Japan,” according to Dziczek.

While committing to work more on the issue of Appalachian investment and environmental improvement, Brown also recommended that the group interact with the Appalachian Regional Commission to see what progress it has made in these area.

Brown acknowledged, however, that the ARC had become “somewhat moribund during the Trump administration.”

Story originally published in The Ohio Capital Journal

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