A Chat with Cathy Kunkel '06
by Jared Flesher, Communications Specialist
Cathy Kunkel has been fighting for environmental issues since she was an undergraduate at Princeton. Among other leadership activities, she advocated for the creation of the University's Office of Sustainability.
Since graduating as a physics major in 2006, Kunkel has worked as an energy policy analyst and environmental advocate. She arrived in West Virginia after getting a short-term assignment analyzing the feasibility of a community wind project—and never left.
Kunkel co-founded Advocates for a Safe Water System in the aftermath of the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill, which left 300,000 residents near Charleston, West Virginia, without potable water for days to weeks. She is also co-founder of Rise Up WV, which advocates for healthcare for all, public education funding and environmental sustainability.
Kunkel is currently running for Congress in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, which spans from east to west across the center of the state.
Q: What is life like right now for people living in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional district?
KUNKEL: We're one of the poorest states in the country, and one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. There are basic infrastructure needs that are lacking like broadband. It's a state with one of the highest rates of opioid deaths. There's a lot of economic desperation here, and we saw that in the teacher strikes we had in West Virginia in 2018, demanding better funding for public education and public employee health insurance.
Q: Why did you decide to run for Congress?
KUNKEL: For the last decade that I've been here, we've been watching the coal industry collapse in West Virginia, going from bankruptcy to bankruptcy. It's been incredibly frustrating to watch that happen, and to hear a lot of empty political promises about bringing back the coal industry without grappling with the reality of climate change, and just even the basic economics of the coal industry being out-competed by natural gas and renewables. I decided to run because I want to be part of real solutions for West Virginia.
Q: What are the issues you're campaigning on?
KUNKEL: I want to go to DC to fight for healthcare for all, funding for public education, and infrastructure investment, basic things we need here in West Virginia.
Knowing there's going to be some major climate legislation in the next decade, we need leadership from Appalachia to really have a seat at the table and negotiate for the resources we need to help transition our economy here.
Q: How do you think West Virginia can move past it's reliance on the coal industry?
KUNKEL: One of the fundamental things we need here is basic infrastructure investment to repair some of the damage that the coal industry and gas industry have done to our land and water... That's kind of foundational for attracting people to move back to the state. No one's going to move to a place that can't guarantee safe drinking water, and sadly that's the case in many parts of the state.
I think we can do a lot more with diversifying our economy into other sectors like tourism and agriculture and clean energy manufacturing.
Q: What would you say to students who aren't sure if they're going to vote in the 2020 election?
KUNKEL: I know that often it seems like politics is frustrating and corrupt. But that's also kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people stop participating in the political process, the more it gets controlled by wealthy powerful interests and lobbyists. So, I would encourage everyone to do their part and get involved.
Interview edited for length and clarity.