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Should the feds bail out coal miners?

By David Roberts - Grist, October 14, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

I wrote yesterday that coal country is largely lost to Democrats, and that’s fine; they don’t need it to put together consistent national majorities.

Lots of people (via Twitter and email) complained that of course those voters are going to the GOP, since at least the GOP offers them sympathy on culture-war issues, while the Democrats offer them nothing. Why should they vote Dem?

Often paired with such complaints is the notion that Dems ought to propose some kind of large-scale federal program to ease the transition of miners and their families away from coal — a bold, populist, New Deal-style development program that would show coal miners (and other rural whites) that Dems care about them.

I was going to do a deep dive on this, but it turns out there aren’t many details or concrete proposals out there, and this kind of thing has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing Congress in a time of (ill-advised) fiscal retrenchment, so I’m not going to do a multi-thousand-word geek-out. Instead, just some idle musings.

LAST BREATH: When a coal miner’s lungs finally gave out, his autopsy proved a top doctor was wrong - giving hope to thousands of other miners. The story of Steve Day and his final vindication

By Chris Hamby - Buzzfeed, October 8, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

After working underground in the coal mines of southern West Virginia for almost 35 years, Steve Day thought it was obvious why he gasped for air, slept upright in a recliner, and inhaled oxygen from a tank 24 hours a day.

More than half a dozen doctors who saw the masses in his lungs or the test results showing his severely impaired breathing were also in agreement.

The clear diagnosis was black lung.

Yet, when I met Steve in April 2013, he had lost his case to receive benefits guaranteed by federal law to any coal miner disabled by black lung. The coal company that employed the miner usually pays for these benefits, and, as almost always happens, Steve’s longtime employer had fought vigorously to avoid paying him. As a result, he and his family were barely scraping by, sometimes resorting to loans from relatives or neighbors to make it through the month.

Like many other miners, he had lost primarily because of the opinions of a unit of doctors at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions that had long been the go-to place for coal companies seeking negative X-ray readings to help defeat a benefits claim. The longtime leader of the unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, testified against Steve, and the judge determined that his opinion trumped all others, as judges have in many other cases.

Today, however, there is final and overwhelming evidence that Wheeler was wrong: Steve’s autopsy.

On July 26, what was left of Steve’s lungs gave out. He was 67 years old. The doctor who performed the autopsy found extensive black lung. With the permission of Steve’s family, I shared his autopsy report with three leading doctors who specialize in black lung and related diseases. Each said essentially the same thing: Steve had one of the most severe cases of black lung they had seen.

“A majority of his lungs had been replaced by scar tissue with coal dust,” said Dr. Francis Green, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary and one of the world’s top experts on the pathology of black lung.

Dr. David Weissman, who heads a federal agency’s division that certifies doctors — including Wheeler — to read chest X-rays, said it was “very concerning” that a certified reader would fail to recognize a case as severe as Steve’s.

Reached by phone, Wheeler said, “I’d love to talk to you, but the hospital has asked that everything be referred to the legal team.”

A Johns Hopkins spokesperson would not comment on Steve’s case, but noted that the black lung X-ray-reading program headed by Wheeler has been suspended, pending an internal review. The spokesperson refused to provide details about the review, saying only that it “is proceeding as rapidly as possible, and I can assure you that Johns Hopkins takes it very seriously.”

Eight months before he died, Steve filed a new claim for benefits, presenting evidence that the masses in his lungs had grown and his breathing had worsened even further. He underwent an exam by a doctor of the company’s choosing, and even this physician found severe black lung.

Polish Miners Block Russian Coal Trains

Reporting by Adrian Krajewski; Editing by Alan Raybould; image from a EuroNews screenshot - Reuters, September 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

More than 200 Polish miners blocked trains carrying Russian coal at a border passage in northern Poland to protest against the cheaper Russian coal being brought in at a time when local mines are struggling, mining union leaders said on Wednesday.

Poland, which uses coal to generate about 90 percent of its electricity, produced 76.5 million tonnes in 2013. It exported 10.6 million tonnes but at the same time imported 10.8 million, mainly from Russia and the Czech Republic.

Imported coal proves cheaper than that from Poland’s largest miners such as Kompania Weglowa or JSW. Faced with high production and labour costs, as well as falling prices and demand, Polish mines are suffering losses.

“Right now around 80 percent of tenders for coal supplies to units run from the state budget are won by suppliers of imported coal, because they offer dumping prices,” Jaroslaw Grzesik, leader of the mining Solidarity union, said.

Dominik Kolorz, who heads the Solidarity union in the coal-rich Slasko-Dabrowskie region, told Reuters the miners may block the Braniewo-Mamonowo passage until a government representative is sent to listen to their demands.

Earlier this year Poland said it was considering sanctions on the import of Russian coal. Poland is among the more vocal supporters in the European Union of tougher sanctions on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank’s Dirty Dollars: U.S. tax dollars are supporting human rights, environment, and labor violations at the Sasan Coal-Fired Power Plant and Mine in India

By various - Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, Pacific Environment, and FOE, October 2014

In January and May 2014, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, Pacific Environment, and Friends of the Earth U.S. (hereafter referred to as the Fact Finding Team), undertook two field visits to Singrauli, India, to meet with communities affected by Reliance Power’s Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) and its associated mine to assess the project’s effect on local communities and the environment.

Since the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) approved over $900 million in financing for the coal project in October 2010, little information has been provided by the agency about Sasan’s compliance with Ex-Im environmental, social, human rights, and corruption policies. This includes the Bank’s commitments under the Equator Principles1 and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards,2 the agency’s environmental, social, human rights and corruption policies, as well whether or not the project has lived up to the expectations laid out in the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) documents for the mine and the power plant. An apparent lack of oversight prompted the NGOs involved in this report to conduct this independent investigation. The Fact Finding Team has uncovered numerous reports of corruption and human rights and labor violations associated with the Sasan coal project, all of which have largely been ignored by the Ex- Im Bank.

Read the report (PDF).

A Coal CEO Allegedly Coerced His Employees To Donate To Political Candidates. Here’s Who Benefited

By Emily Atkin - Think Progress, September 25, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Earlier this month, the United States’ largest independent coal company was slapped with a lawsuit by a former employee, claiming she was illegally fired for refusing to give money to political candidates chosen by her boss. That boss, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, allegedly sent letters to his employees asking them to support pro-coal candidates for political office, keeping track of who made the requested contributions and who didn’t. Employees of Murray Energy and its subsidiary companies were aware that failing to contribute could impact their jobs, the lawsuit claimed.

This incident is not the first time Murray has been accused of pressuring his employees to give money to his preferred candidates and his political action committee, the Murray Energy PAC. “The pressure to give begins as soon as employees enter the company,” the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis reported in a 2012 investigative piece. “At the time of hiring, supervisors tell employees that they are expected to contribute to the company PAC by automatic payroll deduction — typically 1 percent of their salary, a level confirmed by a 2008 letter to employees from the PAC’s treasurer.”

Murray has adamantly denied the veracity of the allegations. In a statement to ThinkProgress, a spokesperson called the latest lawsuit “baseless,” “blatantly false,” and “totally concocted,” deeming it an “attempt to extort money from Murray Energy Corporation.” The claims that Murray knows which of his employees donates and who does not are “totally fabricated,” the spokesperson said, a fact that Murray has “repeatedly stated.”

Still, the allegations raise questions about the ethics and legality of Murray Energy employee donations. Federal Election Commission rules state that corporations can’t make their employees donate to specific candidates or parties “as a condition of employment.” If corporations do ask their employees to contribute to certain funds, they must inform the employee “of his right to refuse to so contribute without any reprisal.”

In the latest accusation of coercion against Murray, the former employee cited fundraising letters she received from Murray in late May of 2014. Those letters asked for contributions to four Republican candidates for U.S. Senate: Scott Brown from New Hampshire, Ed Gillespie from Virginia, Terri Lynn Land from Michigan, and Mike McFadden from Minnesota.

Climate, Coal and Confrontation

By Paul Messersmith-Glavin - The Portland Radicle, May 17, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In a previous essay (Capital and Climate Catastrophe, November, 2012), I outlined how capitalism is responsible for the current climate crisis and how it is not capable of solving it. Here I talk about the local effects of climate change, the effort to export coal through the Pacific Northwest, and about bringing an anti-capitalist perspective to organizing against climate catastrophe.

More Rain, But Less Water

Over the last century, the average annual temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with increases in some areas up to 4 degrees. Changes in forest cover, stream flows, and snowpack are already occurring in our region and will continue. The average annual temperature is expected to increase up to 10 degrees by the time today’s infants enter old age. The winters here are likely to get wetter and the summers drier. Insultingly, people living in the Pacific Northwest are being asked to help further facilitate these devastating changes to our environment by allowing coal trains to export coal to Asia to accelerate global warming.

Much of the region’s water supply is stored in snowpack in the mountains. Snowpack melts in the late spring and summer, running into streams and rivers throughout the year, providing drinking water, a healthy environment for fish, and water for agriculture, and driving energy production through dams. Higher winter temperatures will cause more precipitation to fall as rain, rather than snow. The decreased snowpack, estimated to decline by 40% in only the next 30 years, would increase the incidence of drought in increasingly drier, hotter summers. Increased rain (rather than snow) at higher elevations in the winter would also increase the probability of winter flooding. Overall we’ll experience less availability of drinkable water.

Decreasing water availability would strain existing social relations, as people compete to use dwindling supplies for agricultural irrigation, hydropower, municipal drinking water, industrial uses, and the protection of endangered and threatened animal species. Seventy percent of electric power in the Northwest is supplied by hydropower. At the same time that rising temperatures will increase the demands for air conditioning and refrigeration, decreased summer water supplies will limit hydroelectricity. Salmon, already threatened, will become increasingly vulnerable, with at least a third of their habitat destroyed by century’s end.

Additionally, the impact on the region’s forests will be immense. We can expect increased damage due to proliferating insect attacks from the mountain pine beetle and others, slowed tree growth, and a bloom of forest fires.1

This will all be exasperated by the increased population demands, as people from regions even worse off come to the Pacific Northwest. In the next fifty years, the Portland metro area could grow to as many as 4 – 6 million, from the current level of just under a million. Increasing numbers of ‘climate refugees’ in the region will likely lead to more authoritarian police enforcement. Police play a role of ensuring race and class divisions, often through brutality and murder. This will likely increase with more desperate people.

On the coasts, ocean acidification accompanying climate change is already impacting oyster and other sea life populations and will continue to affect all marine life, as coastal erosion and sea levels increase.

North Portland is most vulnerable to flooding, as the Columbia River floods natural areas such as the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, the airport, and potentially up to two miles of North Portland in the decades and centuries to come.2

As much as climate change will affect the ecological integrity of our region, it will continue to be much more devastating to people living in parts of the world not responsible for producing greenhouse gases. The largely white, European people of the so-called global North dominate and exploit the people of the South. It is primarily poor people of color, not contributing to global warming, who will endure its most devastating effects. It is mostly they who will continue to suffer and die. That’s the racist nature of climate change.

Capital and Climate Catastrophe

By Paul Messersmith-Glavin - The Portland Radicle, November 21, 2012

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Capitalism is changing the weather.  More fundamentally, it is changing the climate.  This is the byproduct of an economic system that relies primarily on burning oil and coal to fuel production and enable the transportation of people and goods.  In looking at capitalists’ responsibility for the climate crisis, a central question is whether capitalism must impact the environment in this way, or if it is capable of changing its mode of production so its continued operation does not change the climate.
A new report estimates that before the year 2030, 100 million people will die as a result of the changing climate.  Ninety percent of these deaths will occur in poor countries.   The ‘climate crisis’ should now be spoken of as the climate catastrophe, because this is what it is for the majority of the peoples of the earth.  The droughts, melting icecaps, tropical storms, and bizarre weather we have been experiencing is just the beginning.

The dominant economic system is the driving force of climate change.  It is based upon the exploitation of oil and coal, which contributes greenhouse gases to the environment, resulting in increasing global temperatures.   The innermost logic of this economic system is the accumulation of capital.  Whatever serves profit thrives.  Currently a large part of the capitalist machine is fueled by oil and coal.  The vast majority of scientific investigation points directly to the burning of oil and coal as having already raised the temperature of the Earth by 1.5 degree Fahrenheit, with the possibility of raising it over ten degrees by the end of this century.  To do this would make life on earth unrecognizable, like something out of a science fiction movie. This may happen by the time today’s infants enter old age.

At one time reformists called for a Green Capitalism, for developing Green technologies and the like.  Major unions, who have reconciled themselves with capital, call for Green Jobs. Reformists and unions suggest that capitalism could be ecological, that it does not have to do things like pollute the air and water and change the climate.  This may be true.  It may be possible to have an exploitative economic system like capitalism, based upon renewable, alternative energy.  After all, the slave trade and early colonial conquest were based upon wind-powered ships and mills.  A central question then is whether the logic of capitalism is inherently ecologically destructive; will capitalism continue to play chicken with our future, or will it revolutionize its mode of production to not change the nature of the environment so much that the future of civilization is put into question?

There is a debate amongst members of the ruling class, the so-called 1%, about which way to go.  Some argue for the development of “carbon markets,” in which the right to put carbon into the environment is bought and sold, thus continuing to profit from the emission of greenhouse gases, while slowly decreasing them.  They argue for developing alternative energy, such as wind and solar, to replace coal and gas.  They promote ‘lifestyle changes’ and taxing coal and oil companies for their emissions.  Right now, this section of the ruling class is losing.  No real change is coming from above to respond to climate catastrophe.

It seems that if the fundamental driving force of capitalism is the further accumulation of capital, it would make sense not to change the ecology so much that you severely reduce the number of producers and consumers, threaten food production, and endanger the future of humanity.  Without civilization, how can capitalism continue?  Right now, the most potent anti-civilizational force on the planet is capitalism.

Black Lung Among Coal Miners At Highest Level In 40 Years

By Kate Valentine - TruthOut, September 16, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Rates of a deadly form of black lung are the highest they’ve been in 40 years among Appalachian coal miners, according to federal experts.

Scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a letter Monday in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine that stated that levels of progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) have risen to levels not seen since the early 1970s among coal miners in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. The high numbers come just 15 years after the “debilitating and entirely preventable respiratory disease” was “virtually eradicated,” the scientists note.

PMF is caused only by breathing in too much coal mine dust, the letter said, so the increase in rates “can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition.” The letter also notes that 2014 marks the 45th anniversary of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which aimed to curb incidence of black lung among coal workers by implementing dust standards. Current rates of PMF prove that exposure to coal dust continues to be a major health hazard for coal miners, however.

“Each of these cases is a tragedy and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease,” the letter reads.

David Blackley, one of the letter’s authors who works at the NIOSH office in Morgantown, West Virginia, told the Charleston Daily Mail that he was “shocked” when he looked at the black lung data.

Five coal miners die in Bosnia after quake causes mine collapse

By Cecelia Jamasmie - Mining.Com, September 5, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Rescuers at Zenica coal mine in central Bosnia freed Friday 29 of the 34 miners trapped underground after a gas explosion that followed a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, which cause the walls to collapse.

Officials halted rescue efforts, believing that five men who remained deep below ground were dead.

Relief among people waiting outside turned to anguish when it became clear that not all 34 men had survived.

Twenty-two other miners managed to leave the pit before it collapsed Thursday evening, AP reports.

Even before news of the deaths emerged, unions and families of the trapped miners claimed management understated the scale of the problem and moved “too slowly” to rescue the men.

Zenica was the site of one of the greatest mining tragedies in Bosnia’s history, when 39 miners were killed in a gas explosion in 1982.

Workers At Coal Waste Landfill Told That Coal Ash Is ‘Safe Enough To Eat,’ Lawsuit Says

By Emily Atkin - Think Progress, September 5, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Employees of an Ohio landfill used primarily for disposing of toxic coal waste byproducts like coal ash were told that the waste was “safe enough to eat” and weren’t required to wear protective gear, resulting in numerous illnesses and some deaths, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of 77 people last month.

Doug Workman, a supervisor at the General James M. Gavin Residual Waste Landfill landfill in North Cheshire, Ohio, allegedly responded to worker inquiries about whether working with the coal waste was safe “by sticking his finger into the coal waste and then placing his fly-ash covered finger into his own mouth,” thereby implying that “that coal waste was ‘safe enough to eat,’” according to a report in the West Virginia Record. Both Workman and American Electric Power — the power company that owns the landfill — are targets of the lawsuit, which claims that workers who handled the waste were not adequately protected from its toxic properties.

“Repeatedly, individuals were not provided with protective equipment, such as overalls, gloves or respirators when working in and around coal waste,” the lawsuit reads. “These working men and women, already exposed to the contaminants at the job site, then, in turn, carried the coal waste home to their families on their clothes and shoes, thus even exposing family members to the deadly toxins.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 77 people, 39 of whom were direct employees of the landfill and others who claim they were harmed by contact with those employees. The West Virginia Record notes that most of the workers were actually employees of contractor companies that worked for AEP.

AEP owns the landfill because it is directly next to one of its coal-fired power plants, and is therefore used to dispose of the waste that comes from that plant. One of the biggest forms of waste from burning coal is called coal ash, which is usually stored with water in large ponds, or in landfills. The black sludgy substance is known to contain arsenic, lead, and mercury.

However, workers at the Gavin landfill were allegedly told that the coal ash was only a mixture of “water and lime,” and that it contained “such low levels of arsenic, it made no difference.” The workers were allegedly told that the “lime neutralizes the arsenic,” according the the Record’s report.

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