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Citizens Begin Reclaiming Coal Country After Decades of Corporate Land Grabs

By Emma Eisenberg - Yes Magazine!, July 2017

Across central Appalachia, once-thriving mining communities have been ravaged by the collapse of the coal industry and the flight of jobs from the region. For a region that remains rich in natural resources, Appalachia’s local governments continue to struggle to fund basic services such as housing, education and roads.

One significant factor in the region’s decline is the land. Since the coal industry began its decline, and even beforehand, millions of acres have essentially been removed from the region’s economic production and tax rolls, and nothing has replaced them.

“Land is the most important thing to us, yet it’s not clear at all who owns it,” says Karen Rignall, assistant professor of community and leadership development at the University of Kentucky. “Without broad-scale knowledge of the patterns of land ownership this region cannot work together to move forward. But who owns it on paper is not always who owns it in actuality. That takes time and money to find out.”

The coal industry of central Appalachia has been on the decline for more than 30 years, with West Virginia and Kentucky losing more than 38,000 coal jobs in that time. As coal companies pulled out, they took with them the dollars that small towns used to use to fund their schools and infrastructure, and left behind abandoned mines, polluted rivers and vast swaths of vacant land.

All over Appalachia, communities and organizations are working around the clock to come up with a way to “justly transition” the Appalachian economy to whatever comes next.

Rignall and postdoctoral researcher Lindsay Shade are collaborating with a growing group of citizens that think a part of the answer to a post-coal economy may lie with an old land ownership study—and have been inspired by it to do a new one.

Maintenance, safety, and the drive for production

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, July 19, 2017

I just read an article about Daniel L. Couch Jr., a mine maintenance chief who pleaded guilty to falsifying safety documents. Before people go throwing him under the bus, it’s important to understand a few things about mine maintenance, safety, and the push for production.

Certified mine electricians don’t just repair electrical equipment and perform maintenance, they are also required to inspect electrical equipment to ensure operational safety, electrical safety, and permissibility (the ability to operate in a methane-air mixture without igniting said methane and causing an explosion). It involves everything from checking the brakes, safety canopies, motor compartments for flammables, fire suppression systems, dust control system, and all of the explosion proof enclosures, cable entrance glands, lights and so on using feeler gauges to ensure tolerances of anywhere from .002 to .005 inches on said enclosures. We also had to hand check upwards of 500 feet of the electrical cable feeding the machine, searching for cuts and punctures to the insulating jacket, sometimes in mud one foot deep. We called them permissibility checks, and they had to be performed weekly and recorded with our signature under 30 CFR Part 75.512.  If the equipment in question wasn’t inspected and signed off on, violations were issued to the company and fines were levied.

As you can imagine, a mine electrician has a lot of responsibility. Not only do you have the responsibility of making sure people aren’t killed operating large pieces of equipment powered by 3 phase voltages from 480 Volts up to 990 “ha-ha” Volts (ha-ha because it’s always over 1000V, but they say 990V to keep from having to comply with regulations for high voltage), but electricians are also the first line of defense in keeping the company out of trouble with the law—and the company doesn’t hold back from pointing fingers if someone does get hurt or they get fined for a violation.

The problem as I encountered it, came when the company didn’t hire enough electricians, or give them enough time to do all required maintenance and safety inspections. They stretch hours out and work people mandatory over time which reduces both their mental acuity and, for some, their work ethic. The mine where I worked, gave us only 6 hours to effect major repairs, perform maintenance, and inspect equipment between production shifts. If we had to advance the section or “belt up,” we were also tasked with shutting down the high voltage feed and moving the section power center (sub station) forward in the mining process. If I’m not mistaken, the manual for a Joy continuous mining machine states it should take more than 10 hours to perform the proper permissibility checks. Things get missed, and the electrician takes the fall.

So how or why the belt drive inspections weren’t performed at Paradise No. 9 is still a mystery to the public. Whatever it was, it led Couch to falsely sign the books saying the inspections had been done to avoid fines. Perhaps he thought he could get by with it, perhaps he was feeling pressured, or maybe he was just looking for an “attaboy.” Still, I can’t help but wonder if a lack of maintenance personnel was a factor.

Rising from the ashes, a Buffalo suburb ends its dependence on coal

By Elizabeth McGowan - Grist, July 11, 2017

Sixteen months ago, the coal-fired Huntley Generating Station, which sits on the banks of the Niagara River, stopped producing power for first time since World War I.

Erie County lost its largest air and water polluter. But the town of Tonawanda, a working class Buffalo suburb 13 miles downstream of America’s most storied waterfalls, also lost its biggest taxpayer.

The impact of Huntley’s decade-long slowdown — and finally shutdown — hit this upstate New York community like a punch to the gut.

In just five years, between 2008 and 2012, Huntley’s pre-tax earnings tumbled by $113 million as it operated far below capacity, translating into a combined revenue hit of at least $6.2 million to the town, county, and local school district. That precipitous decline came when state education funds were also shrinking. Belt-tightening wasn’t enough; 140 teachers lost their jobs. Three elementary schools and one middle school closed their doors.

Rebecca Newberry, a 35-year-old former bartender and LGBT-rights activist, saw her home town facing the same fate that has befallen so many other Rust Belt communities that fell on hard times following an industrial exodus. She was determined not to let it happen to the place where she grew up. And she was fortunate enough to find a diverse group of allies who were willing to fight for their survival.

By combining the resources of her nonprofit, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, with area labor unions and other community groups, Newberry helped to hatch a plan for Tonawanda’s next chapter — and provide an inclusive, equitable template for other blue-collar towns facing the loss of dirty energy jobs and other polluting industries. (The jargony term for this in advocacy circles is “just transitions.”)

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Against Our Own Best Interest: Why Working People Shouldn’t Elect Businessmen Into Office

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 28, 2017

In my experiences, I’ve run across many people who believe business executives are a good choice to be our lawmakers. Many of these same people also complain about the poor treatment of employees and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, decisions that are often made by business executives.  So why exactly do people elect them into public office?

After getting into a variety of debates, I’ve found many people’s logic can be summed up in this statement, “Business leaders are smart people and hard workers who know how to make the right decisions to build companies from the ground up. They are good employers and will use their expertise to fix our government and provide more and better jobs.” If these were the businessmen and women that actually made it into office, I might consider the notion, but this is rarely the case.

Rural conservatives have a strange admiration for business executives as being job creators. Yet, these are the same people who make the big company decisions like downsizing, placing freezes on pay increases, reducing healthcare benefits while increasing employee insurance premium contributions, requring mandatory overtime, all while giving the green light for human resources to treat everyone like a literal resource—or as a threat if they have been harassed or injured in the workplace. Business executives loyalty is always to the stockholders and other investors. They are legally bound to make a profit. If this means eliminating labor overhead, they do.

Our national business culture breeds a superiority complex among corporate executives, making it difficult for them to be kind to their laborers. The free market mandates competition, which good or bad, results in a survival of the fittest mentality that ends up in a quest for the cheapest sources of both labor and materials (like coal). This is the mentality that drives people beyond having a conscious when it comes to the average laborer. For some well-to-do business leaders, it translates into the divine right to take a massive dump on anyone beneath them because, after all, “It’s just business.”

People also seem to forget the golden rule of business that allowed many of our now elected officials to make their fortunes—”It takes money to make money.” The majority of the super wealthy who own the majority of businesses, did not come by their fortunes through a rags to riches story. It came from prior wealth inherited from their predecessors.  They have never had to work hard just to survive and provide for their families. They have no understanding of the people who work for them, and therefore, no reason to care about them.

Searching for Justice in Appalachia: Part II

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 21, 2017

In my original post, I skirted along the edges of some personal beliefs that I often spare my readership, beliefs that I must admit, cause me to doubt myself and this work. As I mentioned in my first post, one of the downsides to being a justice advocate is realizing just how bleak the situation can be. I get up every morning, wondering if we can ever truly achieve justice.

Just to recap, coal companies have billions in assets, lawyers on retainer, political campaign contributions, and they own the majority of our resources in Appalachia. Coal companies use the money they make from our resources to hire marketing firms, pay for advertising time on TV networks, and print thousands upon thousands of Friends of Coal stickers to convince us they are benefiting our communities. For many of us, it’s a struggle just to pay our bills and buy food, let alone stand up against it.

And then there’s something I don’t often admit. There are times I question whether we have anything left to fight for. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been surface mined. Millions of acres have been underground mined leaving voids that will eventually cause subsidence, sinking more wells in the decades to come, and creating more acidic mine drainage laden with heavy metals and whatever waste we left in there. Then there’s the billions of gallons of coal sludge dammed up in hollows all across Appalachia, and tens of thousands of natural gas wells belching out “residual waste” water.

The picture becomes even darker when I realize that the issues we have in Appalachia apply on a global scale. Everywhere there are natural resources to be had, companies have undertaken similar initiatives, and it’s all driven by the insatiable desire of millions and millions of people competing for social status and seeking all things comfortable and convenient. Add in all the social, racial, and environmental injustices that go along with it, and how the mainstream discredits justice seekers as eccentric or extremist and well… there just doesn’t seem to be any hope left out there in the world. I constantly go in and out of states of depression and the idea of throwing my hands in the air to run screaming into the woods where I would live out the remainder of my life as a hermit becomes more and more appealing.

But I never will. I can’t give up.

People on both sides of these debates are so often on the same page but don’t realize it, and therein lies some hope. Most folks working in extractive industries are conservationists, and that’s not a far cry from environmentalists. True, they’d rather be beaten about the head and shoulders with a roof jack than to be considered a “treehugger,” but many would stand up to preserve their hunting grounds or local lake. The problem always seems to be a break down in communications between environmentalists and the working class, and the industry always knows exactly where to place the dynamite on the bridges that are built between them. It’s always in the industry’s interests to keep people at odds—it’s been that way since the union days.

I’m going to keep trying to build those bridges. Some environmentalists consider me arrogant and self-serving when I criticize their methods, and some miners like to call me a “disgruntled employee” or a “treehugger,” but I’m none of it. What I am is crazy. Crazy enough to believe that if we can just clear away the bull****, we might have a chance at gaining our freedom, our land, and our children’s future back. This is where the rubber meets the road for me, this is where the past 20 years of my adult life comes to a head; getting up every morning, putting everything I have out there, taking the licks I get for opening my mouth, trying to scrape by on what little money comes our way, and forging ahead.

Using Miners for Political Gain is Nothing New, Still Repulsive

By Rob Byers - CounterPunch, June 9, 2017

Earlier this spring, I was asked a question about my late father, who had been a coal miner in the 1970s and ’80s. It had to do with a familiar romantic storyline:

Did he feel at home underground? Was it a calling that tugged at him during the layoffs, a longing to get back to the job he loved?

Short answer: No. Long answer: Hell, no.

Best I could tell as a kid, he hated it. It was back-breaking, dangerous, cold, dusty, dirty. He did it for the same reason miners do it today – because it was the best-paying job around for a man with a high-school education.

As a coal miner’s son, you might think I would be proud of all the attention miners are getting nowadays from President Trump and the media. You’d be wrong, though. Actually, I find the whole thing pretty demeaning, as the coal miner is used as a political pawn and an excuse to trash the planet.

Then again, maybe I should be used to it by now. The miner-as-economic-victim thing has been hanging around for quite a while.

After the first Obama election in November 2008, Republican lawmakers, industry groups and political strategists needed a human face for their cause, which was eliminating environmental regulations and ignoring climate change. The noble miner, toiling away underground to power America, was perfect.

Never mind that the cause was much more about making money for political donors and industry partners than it was about any miner’s paycheck.

Now, how about a nice, sound-bite slogan? One that mining families and local politicos could easily spout. Enter the “war on coal” — a purely fictitious battle, of course, but nobody ever said politics was about honesty. And talk about effective marketing. So catchy.

The villain? Well, that was really too easy. Everybody was blaming Obama for everything anyway. Plus, it was a two-for-one deal: They could bash the union at the same time after the UMWA backed Obama in 2008.

Fast forward to 2016 and an out-of-context Hillary Clinton quote later (“we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”) and it was time to trot out the “war on coal” political machine once more.

Trump plays dress-up in a hard hat at a rally at the Charleston Civic Center, feigns what he thinks it must be like to hold a shovel and fakes his way to the White House.

And so, at long last, the Republicans – and many West Virginia Democrats — are getting what they want as Trump rolls back Obama environmental laws and ignores climate change.

By backing out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump gets to act like he’s helping out his base in West Virginia, while really doing nothing – except, of course, forfeiting America’s well-earned perch as the world’s problem solver. And all the while, our congressional delegation dutifully stands back and applauds.

True help for unemployed miners and other West Virginians would mean tackling climate change head-on, embracing renewable energy and re-training people to work in the emerging industries.

But Trump is a champion only for himself … and his golf courses and hotels.

After all, we’ve watched him propose gutting the Appalachian Regional Commission, Legal Aid, low-income heating aid, college tuition assistance and other programs that benefit West Virginians.

I find no value in the argument that West Virginians, miners and other working-class communities across the nation are getting what they deserve. It’s precisely that kind of divisiveness that landed us in this mess.

It’s not foolish for someone to vote for a candidate who promises to represent their specific interests. It’s not surprising for someone to pine for an earlier time, a time they perceive to have been better. That’s been going on since the first time anyone referred to the “good ol’ days.”

In a place where drug abuse and unemployment are rampant, it can be easy to look back instead of ahead. It’s simpler to think back fondly to the busy, bustling mines — and conveniently forget about the slag heaps and polluted streams. The men, women and children buried alive by coal waste at Buffalo Creek. The dust that turns lungs black and slowly chokes lives away.

It’s even simpler when the powerful spend lavishly to make damn sure it happens.

Coal mining can be a dirty business. But so is toying with West Virginia’s hope.

Getting Out of Our Coal Hole

By Oscar Reyes - CounterPunch, May 11, 2017

When you’re in a hole, it’s usually best to stop digging. But when President Trump told supporters at his 100th day rally in Pennsylvania that “we are putting our coal miners back to work,” he just burrowed deeper into the bed of administration lies on energy.

The truth of the matter is that climate regulations aren’t a “war on coal,” and no amount of presidential photo-ops will bring mining jobs back. A recent report from the Center for Global Energy clearly shows why.

The demand for U.S. coal has collapsed in the past six years, it explains, following big improvements in energy efficiency (like better lighting and appliances), cheaper gas and renewables, and a decline in coal exports as other countries look to cleaner sources of energy.

Three of the four largest coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy, while Bob Murray — CEO of the largest remaining one — recently warned Trump that coal jobs are unlikely to return. The CEO should know, as Murray Energy’s formula for avoiding bankruptcy has largely involved slashing jobs, compromising safety, and worsening labor conditions.

America’s main competitors get the point and have already planned to phase out coal. On April 21, the United Kingdom met its energy needs without burning any coal at all — for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. And the country’s last coal-burning power station will close within the next decade.

Meanwhile, a majority of energy companies in the European Union have promised to stop investing in new coal plants by 2020.

China is also fast reducing its reliance on coal. It recently canceled over 100 planned new coal-fired power plants, as well as slashing production at state-controlled coal mines. China has pledged to reduce coal production by 800 million tons per year by 2020, more than the entire annual output of all U.S. mines combined.

Instead of trying to revive the mining sector, in short, we should be planning for its replacement.

Will supporting carbon capture help coal mining communities?

By Nick Mullins - Thoughtful Coal Miner, March 20, 2017

I just read an article stating the National Resource Defense Council and the Clean Air Task Force, two well known, well funded environmental organizations, are now showing support for carbon capture technology at coal fired power plants.

My question is, how will this help a just transition for Appalachia and other areas impacted by coal mining?

Let’s recap the coal industry’s impacts on their employees and local communities:

  • Billions of dollars of coal have left coal mining communities throughout the nation and those communities continue to be among the most economically depressed, unhealthiest, most disadvantaged areas in the nation.
  • Coal companies continuously seek ways to eliminate their debts to coal miners and their families by terminating retirement benefits including healthcare.
  • Coal companies spend money appealing black lung benefits awarded to coal miners.
  • Coal companies also get out of cleaning up the messes they leave behind, including acidic mine drainage, coal slurry impoundments, land subsidence, and terrible surface mine reclamation jobs.

In summation, aside from creating a handful of jobs that take away our long term health, the coal industry is a plague.

Supporting carbon capture gives lease to the coal industry so they may continue their operations. It is a poor solution to treating a symptom rather than addressing the source of our problems—excessive energy use. Why is it so difficult to implement and support behavior based energy efficiency education, and to invest in energy efficiency technology that could provide thousands of jobs?

The Coal Industry is a Job Killer

By Basav Sen - CounterPunch, April 28, 2017

When Donald Trump announced he was rolling back the Obama administration’s signature climate rules this spring, he invited coal miners to share the limelight with him. He promised this would end the so-called “war on coal” and bring mining jobs back to coal country.

He was dead wrong on both counts.

Trump has blamed the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan for the loss of coal jobs. But there’s an obvious problem with this claim: The plan hasn’t even gone into effect! Repealing it will do nothing to reverse the worldwide economic and technological forces driving the decline of the coal industry.

And the problem is global. As concern rises over carbon dioxide, more and more countries are turning away from coal. U.S. coal exports are down, and coal plant construction is slowing the world over — even as renewables become cheaper and more widespread.

To really bring back coal jobs, Trump would have to wish these trends away — along with technological automation and natural gas, which have taken a much bigger bite out of coal jobs than any regulation.

Could domestic regulation have played some role in the decline of coal? Sure, some. Rules limiting emissions of mercury and other pollutants from burning coal, and limiting the ability of coal-burning utilities to dump toxic coal ash in rivers and streams, likely put some financial pressure on coal power plants.

However, those costs should be weighed against the profound health benefits of cleaner air and water.

Cleaning up coal power plants (and reducing their number) leads to fewer children with asthma, fewer costly emergency room visits, and fewer costly disaster responses when massive amounts of toxic coal ash leach into drinking water sources, to name just a few benefits. Most reasonable people would agree those aren’t small things.

There’s also the fact that the decline in coal jobs, while painful for those who rely on them, tells only a small part of the story. In fact, there are alternatives that could put hundreds of thousands of people back to work.

Here are a few little-known facts: Coal accounts for about 26 percent of the electricity generating capacity in our country — and about 160,000 jobs. Solar energy accounts for just 2 percent of our power generation — and 374,000 jobs.

In other words, solar has created more than twice as many jobs as coal, with only a sliver of the electric grid. So if the intent truly is to create more jobs, where would a rational government focus its efforts?

It’s not just solar, either. The fastest growing occupation in the U.S. is wind turbine technician. And a typical wind turbine technician makes $25.50 an hour, more than many fossil fuel workers.

By rolling back commonsense environmental restraints on the coal industry, Trump is allowing the industry to externalize its terrible social and environmental costs on all of us, giving the industry a hidden subsidy. He’s also reopening federal lands to new coal leases, at rates that typically run well below actual market value.

By subsidizing a less-job intensive and more established industry, Trump’s misguided policy changes will thwart the growth of the emerging solar and wind industries, which could create many, many more jobs than coal. In fact, hurting these industries by helping coal might even result in a net job loss for everyone.

Then again, maybe this was never about jobs. Maybe the administration’s intent all along was to reward well-connected coal (and oil and gas) oligarchs who make hefty campaign contributions. If so, that was a good investment for them.

For ordinary working people — and for our planet — the cost could be too much to bear.

Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy: an Organizing Proposal

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 29, 2017

The world faces a crises of enormous proportions. Global warming, caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels, threatens life on Earth as we know it, and yet, those most responsible for causing the crisis, the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, seems hell bent on doubling down on business as usual. In the United States of America, whose corporate overlords are among the worst offenders, they are led by the recently elected Donald Trump, whose cabinet is bursting at the seams with climate change denialists and fossil fuel capitalist industry representatives. Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy and decarbonizing society as quickly as possible, as climate scientists overwhelmingly recommend, Trump and his inner circle would seemingly rather not just maintain the status quo; they’ve signaled that they intend to make the worst choices imaginable, putting all of the US’s energy eggs into the oil, natural gas, and coal basket.

Worse still, Trump claims to enjoy a good deal of support for such moves from the Voters who elected him, which includes a good portion of the "White working class" who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, whose policies are just barely more favorable to addressing the problems of global warming (which is to say, still woefully inadequate). Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO, pushed principally by the Building Trades unions, have doubled down on their efforts to continue to serve as capital’s junior partners, even as the latter continues to liquidate them in their ongoing campaign of systemic union busting.  Just recently, science teachers across the country began to find packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming", a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to "read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom," courtesy of the climate change denialist Heartland Institute.

One might think, given all of these situations, that…well, to put it mildly…we’re doomed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in spite of the bleakness of these circumstances, a deeper look behind them reveals that fossil fuel capitalism is in terminal decline, that their hold over our lives hangs by a thread, so much that we the people, the workers and peasants of the world, have the ability to transform the human existence to one based not on plundering the Earth and exploiting the masses for the profit of a few, but one based on true grassroots democracy, free of suffering and want, and one that exists in harmony with the Earth. The key to making this transformation lies with clean energy, and the people who can make this transformation are the very people who helped elect Donald Trump themselves. One may justifiably ask, how is this even remotely possible?

This new organizing proposal, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy, offers a potential solution and practical steps to achieve it which can not only break the reactionary tide, perhaps once and for all, but also can greatly accelerate the very necessary process of abolishing capitalism and building a new, ecological sustainable world in the shell of the ecocidal old by building an intersectional movement championing "Clean Energy Democracy". Such a movement has the potential to unite workers, rural and rustbelt communities, climate justice activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and farmers of all backgrounds and revitalize a vibrant and grassroots democratic anti-capitalist left, and it offers goals that help address the intertwining crises of global warming, decadent capitalism, failing economies, and demoralized communities plagued by economic depression, racism, and reactionary nationalism.

While the burgeoning "resistance", loosely led by a coalition of groups and movements with a smorgasbord of goals and demands, many of which are reformist and defensive (though not undesirable if seen as steps along the way to more revolutionary and transformative demands) has so far successfully held back much of the worst intentions of Trump and the forces he represents, making the latter fight tooth and nail for every single inch (as well they should), such resistance still lacks the positive vision needed to truly meet the needs of most people, including especially the most oppressed and downtrodden. By contrast, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy offers one piece of a revolutionary and transformative vision that can truly help build a new world within the shell of the old, thus putting an end to capitalist economic oppression as well as the ongoing systematic destruction of the Earth's ability to sustain life.

Download the Proposal (PDF File).

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