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Just Transition for the coal industry is expensive – but cheaper than failure to address the needs

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 5, 2017

July 2017 saw the release of  Lessons from Previous Coal Transitions:  High-level Summary for Decision-makers , a synthesis report of case studies of past coal mining transitions in Spain, U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, U.S., and the Czech Republic – some as far back as the 1970’s.  Some key take-aways from the report:  “Because of the large scale and complexity of the challenges to be addressed, the earlier that actors (i.e. workers, companies and regions) anticipated, accepted and began to implement steps to prepare and cushion the shock of the transition, the better the results”; “the aggregate social costs to the state of a failure to invest in the transition of workers and regions are often much higher that the costs of not investing from an overall societal perspective.” While the level of cost details varies in the case studies, it is clear that costs are significant.  For example, the case study of Limburg, Netherlands states that the national government spent approximately 11.6 billion Euros (in today’s prices) on national subsidies to support coal prices and regional reconversion, in addition to  several 100 million per year in EU funds. “One estimate also suggested that in the Dutch case, all told, regional reinvestment in new economic activities also cost about 300 to 400 000€/per long-term job created.”  Limburg is also cited as “remarkable for the relatively consensual nature of the transition between unions, company and government.”  (see page 10).

The Synthesis report and individual case study reports of the six countries are available here . These are the work of the Research and Dialogue on Coal Transitions project, a large-scale research project led by Climate Strategies and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) , which also sponsors the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  Future reports scheduled for 2018: a Global report, and a Round Table on the Future of Coal.

Coal Miners Are Good People

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, September 1, 2017

People ask me “Why do Appalachians vote against their own best interests?” Some are friends who are honestly trying to understand the situation from a point of concern. I know that they seek the cause for the discrepancy, rather than assume coal mining families are incapable of making intelligent political decisions.

The question still stings however,  and whether meant or not, it brings up the age old stereotypes of Appalachian people as being backward and ignorant. Often I can separate those who mean well, from those who are just out to place the blame on someone for our nations current political troubles. The latter tend to follow up their question with another statement— “They are bringing it on themselves.”

Such outright condescension pisses me off and explains much of why people back home vote exactly the way they do.

In his book Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers (1982), Ron D. Eller stated that our nation seeks to attribute Appalachia’s social problems to a “pathological culture” rather than the “economic and political realities in the area as they evolved over time.” In 2017, nothing has changed. Case in pointHillbilly Elegy.  The realities Eller speaks of, however, are linked wholesale to the trillions of dollars of natural resources our ancestors inadvertently settled upon 200 years ago, resources that supply our nation’s insatiable low-cost desires for all things comfortable and convenient. Suffice to say, this crucial information is willfully overlooked in most media representations of Appalachia and becomes just one of many other issues backlogged within our nation’s cognitive dissonance.

As with most materialism in our country, people don’t want to know about the origins of their lifestyles: the deplorable third world sweatshops filled with children sewing together our latest fashions; the slave labor used to extract precious metals in Africa for our electronics; industrial farming complete with pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones; and the exploitation and destruction of Appalachian communities to supply electrical power and provide other raw materials. As our nation continues its frivolous pillaging, people continually find it easier to ignore and dehumanize those who suffer from it rather than to acknowledge the true costs of their urban wonderlands.

I refuse to let this happen, especially with the people I know and grew up respecting.

From the Abused Heart of Coal Country, Warnings and Lessons on Next Steps

By Lucy Duff - The Washington Socialist, July 31, 2017

This June I traveled to the heart of coal country in southern West Virginia, my native state.  Over recent years films and news stories have exposed the ravages of mountaintop-removal mining on that land and its people’s health and livelihood.  The documentary Blood on the Mountain, a feature last year and this in our metro DC LaborFest, is one such source.  It portrays this most intensely mechanized technology as an acceleration of a century of Appalachian exploitation by the mining industry.  Shaving off mountain tops, it now extracts many more tons of coal with fewer workers. That has shrunk the scope for comparatively well-paid work that the United Mine Workers (UMWA) long struggled hard to negotiate. Mountaintop-removal has intensified risks of damage from flooding, blasting, ambient coal dust, sludge storage and water pollution.  State – and now federal – officials fail to enforce what regulations exist against workers’ risks, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Fracked cheap natural gas nevertheless outcompetes coal.

Well before mountaintop-removal sped up mining’s harmful impact, federal-state partnerships had been aiming to “tune up” the core Appalachian industry for “more desirable social outcomes,” but with modest funding and negligible effect (John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History, 2002).   It was in large part an economic draft that swept many young millennial mountaineers into our military. Those who returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan were apt to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, for which they were prescribed opioids. Today the southeastern coal region looms as a national epicenter both of rural poverty and of addiction.

I wanted to see and hear for myself just how bad the situation there is, and what the people make of their prospects.  Van Jones’ recent watchword to an anti-Trump audience- “I don’t like coal but I love coal miners, ‘cause they go down in holes”- was on my mind.  How to think distinctly about moving to green energy and yet dealing justly with fossil-fuel workers? 

For my short visit I’d arranged an appointment with staff of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), based in Raleigh County at Naoma, not far from Beckley, WV.  For nearly twenty years this small nonprofit has pursued its main goals: to halt permits for further mountaintop-removal mines and to reduce violations by current operators of clean-water and occupational-safety law. Thus I got to speak with two among the relatively few local people who actively resist the coal-industry ties of business and government. One is Debbie Jarrell, CRMW Co-Director. The younger activist, Junior Walk, drove me on a brief tour with distant views of mountaintop removal in action and of a former reclaimed mine site.

CRMW aims to save what’s left of Coal River Mountain — the tops of its neighbors Cherry Pond and Kayford Mountains having been blown away– and to salvage the community’s quality of life. Its strategy is largely on the legal front.  Since state mine inspectors do no more than a pro forma job, the nonprofit has enlisted citizens to help its staff monitor mining activity that erodes mountainsides and pollutes streams and drinking water. Some volunteers are mapping a watershed plan to keep impurities out of Marsh Fork, a tributary of Big Coal River.  CRMW files lawsuits against the most flagrant violations and publicizes judicial outcomes.  It campaigns for stronger measures to contain massive toxic coal sludge. It succeeded in getting closure of an elementary school located near a strip mine and sludge impoundment and building of a new school at a safe distance.  This summer it has been testifying at hearings about the health impacts of surface mining for a study currently underway by a National Academy of Sciences panel.  CMRW is one of about a dozen advocacy grassroots member groups of the Alliance for Appalachia, joined in multi-state pushback against the coal industry.  Yet it views these efforts as mainly a “holding action;” to carry on much more against entrenched powers would be an act of futility.   

After years of decline, the crippling disease is rebounding, worse than before

By Dan Radmacher - Appalachian Voices, August 22, 2017

“There is an epidemic here in Southwest Virginia, in Eastern Kentucky, in Southern West Virginia,” says Ron Carson, director of the Black Lung Program at Virginia’s Stone Mountain Health Services. “Miners are getting sicker and dying at a much younger age. A lot of people are going to be shocked when they see the numbers.”

Carson has been working with researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to put hard numbers to this deadly resurgence, and he says they have been astounded by the number of cases Carson’s clinic is seeing of progressive massive fibrosis cases, the most serious form of black lung disease.

In a report from similar research released last December, NIOSH researchers found a cluster of 60 such cases from one Eastern Kentucky radiology practice over a nine-month period — three times the number of cases the national Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program found from 2011 to 2016.

Around the same time the NIOSH report was released, an NPR investigation by Howard Berkes aired that identified more than 1,000 cases of progressive massive fibrosis during the past decade — 10 times the number officially recognized by the federal government.

Complicated black lung is debilitating in the extreme, Carson says. “Some young miners come in to this clinic in wheelchairs because they don’t have enough breath to walk,” he says. “We have miners at age 28 with eight years of exposure to coal dust waiting for a lung transplant.”

Progressive massive fibrosis, like other forms of black lung disease, cannot be cured and is eventually fatal. Carson says the clinic focuses on easing the miners’ suffering. “We make every effort to give them a better quality of life,” he says. “Therapists do pulmonary rehab and work on patient education. They talk to them about winterizing their lungs — cold air has drastic effects on this condition.”

Jill Hutchison, the first director of the Black Lung Clinics Program in West Virginia and retired CEO of the West Virginia Primary Care Association, said the number of miners treated in West Virginia’s 18 black lung clinics increased by 26 percent last year.

“Black lung is not going away,” she says. “It is an ugly disease. It’s heart-breaking to watch a miner struggle just to breathe. The clinic’s helping black lung patients use medicine, dietary recommendations and exercise to improve their quality of life as much as possible.”

The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce

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

There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.

So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.

Germany’s Transition from Coal to Renewable Energy Offers Lessons for the Rest of the World

By Emma Bryce - Ensia, August 10, 2017

The country’s decades-long shift from industrial mining to clean energy has brought both challenge and opportunity.

Seventy-seven-year-old Heinz Spahn — whose blue eyes are both twinkling and stern — vividly recalls his younger days. The Zollverein coal mine, where he worked in the area of Essen, Germany, was so clogged with coal dust, he remembers, that people would stir up a black cloud whenever they moved. “It was no pony farm,” he says — using the sardonic German phrase to describe the harsh conditions: The roar of machines was at a constant 110 decibels, and the men were nicknamed waschbar, or “raccoons,” for the black smudges that permanently adorned their faces.

Today, the scene at Zollverein is very different. Inside the coal washery where Spahn once worked — the largest building in the Zollverein mining complex — the air is clean, and its up to 8,000 miners have been replaced by one-and-a-half million tourists annually. The whole complex is now a UNESCO world heritage site: Spahn, who worked here as a fusion welder until the mine shut down on December 23, 1986, is employed as a guide to teach tourists about its history. “I know this building in and out. I know every screw,” he says fondly.

Zollverein is a symbol of Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy — a program called the Energiewende that aims to have 80 percent of the country’s energy generated from renewables by 2050. That program has transformed Germany into a global poster child for green energy. But what does the transition mean for residents of Essen and the rest of the Ruhr region — the former industrial coal belt — whose lives and livelihoods have been dramatically altered by the reduced demand for coal? The answer to that could hold some useful lessons for those undergoing similar transitions elsewhere.

As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 8, 2017

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.

For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those  “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s.  Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.

Many of us know this will be one of the last booms, if not THE last boom in the coal industry, especially in Appalachia. There is a long term movement away from coal in the global markets, and what accessible coal is left in our mountains will be retrieved through increased mechanization. Coal will not bring our towns back to life. If anything, it is acting as short term life support.

We need to make sure the coal industry does not come out of this smelling like roses as they always have. It is time we make them do what’s right by the miners who dig their profits out of the ground. Not one ton of coal should be removed until miners have the right to shut down an operation if it’s unsafe…without fear of losing their jobs.

It’s also time we make companies pay their debts to both the land and people where their operations have pillaged our resources. Along with a thorough reform of each state’s coal severance tax system, additional taxes should be levied against every ton of coal and  used to pay for mined land reclamation, developing clean water projects for communities, shoring up pension funds and health care benefit funds for retired miners and their families, building new infrastructure, and providing an honest-to-god just economic transition so people can lead healthier, happier lives in the region—not just participate in more economic development that sets the stage for opportunistic companies to come in and exploit our labor with the ancillary benefit of tax breaks.

It’s time for reparations, and this is our chance to get them.

Citizens living within the coalfields need to watch their politicians like hawks and vote in the people who are going to make sure this happens. This last boom shouldn’t be for the benefit of investors and company officials. This last boom should be about taking care of coal mining communities, just like Donald Trump promised.

My Coal Childhood: Lessons From Germany’s Mine Pit Lakes

By Anica Niepraschk - CounterPunch, August 4, 2017

I grew up one kilometre from the edge of a brown coal mine and surrounded by many others. I remember staring in awe and fear at this massive hole, scared of getting too close after hearing stories of people buried alive because they walked along the unstable mine walls.

My family lives in the Lausitz region of Germany, once home to 30 brown coal mines. Situated between Berlin and Dresden, the region has been shaped by this industry for over 100 years. It was the German Democratic Republic’s energy powerhouse – its Latrobe Valley – with coal mining the largest source of jobs.

That changed with Germany’s reunification, when the economy restructured to a market approach and most of the mines were closed. The only major industry was gone, leaving the countryside punctured with massive holes, and the community with big questions about how to make the region liveable again.

The Latrobe Valley in Victoria is starting to face similar changes. Hazelwood power station and mine shut down a few months ago and the world is moving away from fossil fuels. People are asking the same questions we did in Germany 15 years ago: how do we transition to a more diverse and sustainable economy, while continuing to provide jobs for local workers? What do we do with the dangerous pits left behind?

The same solutions are put forward too. Engie, the owner of Hazelwood, is proposing to fill all or part of the mine pit to become a lake and recreation area. The inspiration comes from the Lausitz, but some of the key challenges of this solution seem not to be given enough attention.

In my early teens, as I watched these massive mines around our house fill with water, I got excited about the prospect of living in an area renamed ‘Neuseenland’, meaning the land of new lakes. But while I was able to enjoy summer days swimming in some of these flooded mines, the process of filling them with water has been very slow. Many have already been filling up for 10 or 20 years, and are still a long way from being safe.

This is in a region of Germany with plenty of water. The huge pits could be filled with combinations of diverted waterways, groundwater access, rainfall and large amounts of reprocessed mining water, transferred from other nearby operating mines.

These water sources are not available to the same extent in the Latrobe Valley. To give a sense of scale, it would take more water than is in all of Sydney Harbour just to fill one of the brown coal mines. Where will all this come from? What are the downstream impacts of taking this much water? Would a lake be safe for the public to use? The Hazelwood inquiry into mine rehabilitation identified these looming challenges, and the Victorian government has created a rehabilitation commissioner and an advisory committee to start finding answers, but right now we just don’t know.

Then there’s the environmental contamination. In the Lausitz, mining had already polluted the waterways with high amounts of iron hydroxides, calcium and sulphates. Flooding the mine pits spread this pollution even further, degrading local ecosystems. Increasingly salty waterways now threaten drinking water supplies to Berlin and surrounds and make water management more expensive. Mining companies are the biggest users of water but don’t even have to pay for it.

For local communities, other major consequences include rising groundwater flooding basements, cracking building structures and shifting the ground.

Landslides are a real worry. In the Lausitz in 2009, a 350-metre wide strip of land – including buildings, a road and a viewing platform – slid into the adjacent pit lake, burying three people. In 2010, in an area where the former mine surrounding was regarded as very stable and settled, 27 hectares of forests sank into the earth. This will come as no surprise to people of the Latrobe Valley, where the Princes Highway was closed for eight months in 2011 due to landslides related to the adjacent Hazelwood mine.

There have been many more such incidents in the Lausitz, and the risk prevents whole areas from being accessed which were used for farmland, wind farms, industry or forests. Yet when the Lausitz is promoted as the poster child of mine rehabilitation through flooding, many of these challenges aren’t mentioned.

Community consultations on the future of the Hazelwood mine will begin in September. So far, the community has expressed many ideas other than filling the mine pit with water but these remain ignored. Engie is unwilling to release the full list of rehabilitation concepts they considered before settling on the pit lake solution. This makes it difficult for the community to understand the recommendation and weigh it up against alternatives.

Before more planning proceeds on the assumption that a pit lake is the only option, the lessons learned from the experience in the Lausitz should be aired and discussed in the Latrobe Valley. It’s important to avoid the potential negative consequences of flooding mine pits as best as possible from the beginning, and to make sure the mine owners pay for the precious water they are taking, like everybody else does.

Most of all, the community needs to have a bigger say in what happens to retired mine pits. Like me, the children of Morwell, Moe and Traralgon in Victoria will grow up surrounded by massive, dangerous holes in the ground. Their families have the most at stake in what happens, so they should have the loudest voice in shaping the region’s future, not the corporate mine owners who shaped its past.

Korean Unions Call for a “Just Energy Transition” to Move Away From Coal and Nuclear

By Steve Early - Counterpunch, August 4, 2017

In a series of landmark statements following the May 2017 election of the pro-reform President Moon Jae-in, Korean energy, transport and public service workers have called for “a just energy transition” allowing the sector to “function as a public asset under public control.”  Unions support the new government’s decision to close the country’s aging coal-fired and nuclear power stations, and its planned reconsideration of two new nuclear facilities, Kori 5 and Kori 6. In a statement issued in late July, the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) and the Korean Labour and Social Network on Energy (KLSNE), a coalition of unions and civil society organization, said, “We actively support the policy of phasing out coal and nuclear and expanding clean renewable energy.” The statement urged the development of, “A roadmap for energy transition that ensures public accountability and strengthens democratic control of the energy industry.” KPTU and KLSNE also committed  “to work together with the public and civil society to achieve a just transition.”

The Korean Labour and Social Network on Energy (KLSNE) and the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) Support the Government’s Policy of a Transition towards a Coal-free, Nuclear-free Energy System

The Moon Jae-in government, which was elected on a pledge to phase out coal and nuclear generation and scale up clean renewables, is now moving quickly to enact these promises. Following a temporary shutdown of old coal-fired power plants, the Kori 1 nuclear reactor was permanently closed down on June 19. The government is now reconsidering plans to build new nuclear reactors Kori 5 and 6. The KLSNE and KPTU declare our support for these policies and our intentions to play a leading role in bring about a just energy transition.

The government’s establishment of a commission to assess public opinion on the plans to build Kori reactors 5 and 6 on July 24 sparked immediate outcry from nuclear power business interests and pro-nuclear power scholars. The press has exacerbated this conflict with sensational reporting. It is deeply regrettable that those who oppose the government’s policies are speaking only from their individual self-interest without putting forth viable alternatives.

It is even more regrettable that the voices of workers at the Korean Hyro & Nuclear Power Corporation and other nuclear-power related companies who support a just transition are being stifled in the process. We stress the importance of recognising the difference between nuclear power business interests and the nuclear power workers. These workers are the people most easily exposed to radiation and at the most risk in the case of accidents. Electricity and gas workers, who have been discussing paths for a just transition for many years now, are sure that nuclear power workers will soon join us in this effort.

During the last nine years of conservative rule, South Korea’s energy policy has been focused on restructuring aimed only at meeting the interest of corporations (i.e. privatisation). The result has been the expansion of nuclear power and private coal and LNG generation and massive profits for corporations. Energy policy has been consistently undemocratic and anti-climate.

With South Korea now facing the threat of earthquakes and air contaminated with fine dust it is only natural that we energy workers, who have fought for almost two decades to stop privatisation and protect our public energy system, would take a leading role in the fight for a just energy transition.

The Ongoing Fight Against Media’s Misrepresentation of Appalachia

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 2, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today.

Let me start by saying that I am beyond angry with the title of the article and the image Bloomberg chose. The photo was a quick snapshot, catching two coal workers off guard with the intent of portraying them as senseless animals being enticed with a treat. Is it any wonder that we are upset with urban elitism and the so called “left” media? As I stated in my Yes! Magazine article, stereotyping Appalachians (in this case as being unintelligent) feeds directly into the divisive rhetoric spread by conservative politicians and coal industry associations. It is often so brazen, I honestly wonder if this isn’t the intent.

In terms of my quotes, I did NOT infer that people were actively avoiding retraining or other careers because of gender stereotypes and gender roles within the region. My quote, like the photo, was a snippit of a conversation that lasted 15 minutes. The issue is complex and leaves a great deal of room for speculation.

There is a lot of pride and heritage in coal mining, but very few coal miners would stick with a career in the mines if job alternatives with similar wages and benefits were available in the region.

When it comes to why miners weren’t jumping at job opportunities created by the health care industry, I did state that miners who were already involved in local emergency medical services and rescue squads could easily transition into such work, but there are many miners who would not consider it. This was not to say that they are incapable of the job, or that they have been institutionalized by the coal industry. I tried to explain that it would be a different environment to work in, and many would not pursue it for the same reason a large portion of our population does not pursue jobs in the healthcare industry. It takes a specific type of person to engage in the duties fulfilled by nurses and surgical staff.

I did speculate that many miners were holding out hope for Trump bringing back coal jobs and that many do not participate in retraining because of the lack of jobs available as they exit retraining. I also mentioned that some may fear that companies would not hire them if officials believed they were pursuing career alternatives. The coal industry has a very captive workforce at the moment, and they are seeking only the most dedicated miners to exploit.

This article is just more media misrepresentation of Appalachia not unlike what Ivy Brashear spoke to in her article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia.” Speaking of which, stay tuned as I will be addressing Hillbilly Elegy in the near future.

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