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Coal Mine Cleanup Works: A Look at the Potential Employment Needs for Mine Reclamation in the West

By Kate French - Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), July 2020

The collapse of the coal industry is devastating small communities across the Western United States, but reclaiming these mined lands quickly could create up to 4,800 full-time equivalent jobs per year in the critical two to three year period after mine closure according to our new report, Coal Mine Cleanup Works. The report estimates potential reclamation job creation for four Western coal states (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming) and provides recommendations for decision makers to ensure cleanup is fully funded and employs the local workforce. 

These findings offer a rare bright light of opportunity for coal communities that are facing massive lay-offs and lost revenue as the coal industry crumbles. Reclamation is one of the few immediately available job opportunities for local workers after a mine shuts down, and the report finds that these jobs are ideally suited for current or former miners.

Coal Mine Cleanup Works key findings include:

  • Surface coal mine reclamation could create up to 4,800 full-time equivalent jobs per year in the critical two to three year period after mine closure. These potential yearly jobs represent up to 65% of the current surface mining workforce in the four-state region. 
  • Reclamation is one of the few immediately available job opportunities for local workers after a mine shut down, and the report finds that these jobs are ideally suited for current or former miners.
  • An important component of a just economic transition is having some immediate job creation solutions, like cleanup jobs, paired with longer-term job solutions.
  • Delayed and underfunded reclamation are the biggest hurdles to getting laid-off miners back on the job doing cleanup work.

Read the text (PDF).

A Look At the Miners’ Blockade Stopping Coal in its Tracks

By Earth First! Journal - It's Going Down, August 14, 2019

When I heard news of the coal miners’ railroad blockade in Harlan County, I knew it presented a real chance for growth, especially for movements like Earth First! who are at the intersection of various struggles, including eco-defense, anti-capitalism, climate justice, and prison abolition.

Though I spent most of my life in flat swampy Florida, stories of Harlan County, Kentucky, were burned into my head as a teenage anarchist in circles of Earth First!ers and IWW-types singing labor songs by fireside.

One of the most famous of union ballads, “Which Side Are You On?,” about miners’ resistance in the Kentucky coalfields, includes the line, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there…” Even before the development of climate-focused mass movement, it has always been Big Coal vs. the rest of us.

Over the years, I must have heard dozens of knock-offs of that song for campaigns all across the country. We’d replace Harlan with whatever county we found ourselves in at the time, facing off with corporate raiders of all types.

And now the barricades have come full circle: back to Harlan, a locale of near-mythical significance for it’s legacy of resistance to corporate greed. The miners there have stopped a coal train operated by the company Blackjewel LLC, which filed for bankruptcy and secretly stopped paying the miners while they were still working.

The past and future of Harlan County

By Vincenzo Blandini - Organizing Work, August 2, 2019

I wrote a review of the movie “Harlan County, USA” not too long ago. It was, frankly, a painful experience for me. I truly hoped to not be writing about Appalachian coal country, and much less Harlan County, Kentucky, for some time. I’ve long since moved on from the coal industry, but it still pains me whenever I read news of some tragedy among my brothers and sisters in darkness.

On July 1, Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the balance are nearly 1,700 employees’ livelihoods across Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. Immediately upon filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel closed many of the mines it operated and workers had their paychecks bounce. The mineworkers had their hard-earned wages stolen from them, both from their paychecks and from their retirement and benefit plans. Some miners have even reported that their 401(k) contributions haven’t been properly credited for months. The miners are owed nearly $12 million in wages and $1.2 million in retirement contributions. This bankruptcy doesn’t appear to be disrupting recently ousted CEO Jeff Hoops from building a $30 million resort in West Virginia, however. 

In fact, this outright lack of responsibility from the coal bosses is business as usual. In 2012, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) responded with huge concessions in employee pay and benefits, as well as cutting $130 million in retiree healthcare and benefits that were already promised. Their taste buds already whetted for concessions, and facing harsh market conditions, the coal bosses went to bat again in 2015. Patriot Coal again declared bankruptcy and auctioned itself to Blackhawk Mining. As part of the purchase, Blackhawk Mining refused to honor the terms of the mineworkers union’s contract. Blackhawk Mining abandoned Patriot’s nearly $1 billion of healthcare and pension obligations to the mineworkers, as well as $233 million in environmental cleanup costs.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Blackhawk Mining has declared a restructuring through bankruptcy which, if the recent past has told us anything, will almost certainly be paid for through robbing the mineworkers who did all the actual work. Indeed, the majority of coal mined in the U.S. is done by companies that have declared bankruptcy at least once (and usually more times) since 2015 alone.

For years, the coal industry has been declining dramatically in the face of the massive boom in natural gas extraction and renewable energy sources, as well as a huge drop in demand for coal as a result of the all-but-extinct use of coal for comfort heating in both the residential and commercial market. As a result of this, the coal companies have taken reckless action to lower their operating costs, in order to try and stay relevant in a market with cheap natural gas and renewables whose cost is steadily decreasing. They did so through automation of mine work, as well as pushing more and more for open-pit mining (which is much cheaper to operate and much more automated). They’ve done so through extracting concessions from the growingly jaded and out-of-touch United Mineworkers of America. Finally, they are now doing so by brazenly refusing to pay their bills. The mine operators are playing business like it is a child’s lemonade stand, and the miners who have sacrificed so much already are paying the bill against their will and at great personal cost. Truthfully, this behavior is no less than highway robbery.

Similar to the decline of the coal industry has been the decline of the populations it operated in. Harlan County was a sparsely populated place before coal mining started there in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, 75000 people lived there. Today less than 27,000 do so. The number of mineworkers employed in the county dropped off from more than 13,000 to less than 800 in the same period. The average lifespan of a Harlan County resident has actually gotten shorter between the 1980s and now, and they live on average ten years less than the average American. Unemployment in Harlan is double the national average. A similar story can be told across Appalachian coal country.

Against this backdrop, miners affected by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy heist in Harlan County, Kentucky are putting their collective foot down. The bankruptcy has left nearly a quarter of Harlan County miners out of work. For five days now, a group of miners has occupied the railroad tracks leaving from a mine. They are blocking a train loaded with coal (the train was only allowed to pass after it abandoned its load). Coal that they worked to get out of the ground. Work that they haven’t been paid for. Blackjewel intends to have its cake and eat it too: it intends to keep making money while the miners go without their pay. The group of miners blocking the rail say that they aren’t leaving until they get paid. “No Pay, We Stay” is their motto, and if they are successful in keeping that coal from being shipped to a buyer, then they may just get what is rightfully theirs.

By all accounts, nearly all of Harlan County is fired up about this madness. Even their politicians, heartless wretches that they are, have been pressured into showing up to the occupation to voice their support. 

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