You are here

Appalachia

The National Mining Association doesn’t speak for coal communities

By Erin Savage - Appalachian Voices, October 5, 2017

Last month, West Virginian Bil Lepp authored a letter in the Charleston Gazette-Mail regarding the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to halt a review of research linking mountaintop removal coal mining and impacts to human health.

In his letter, Lepp calls out the National Mining Association and cites its skepticism of the review, which was led by the National Academy of Sciences and already well underway.

“The National Mining Association is saying that because mountaintop removal is such a small part of the mining industry, the people affected by it simply aren’t worth worrying about,” Lepp wrote. “They are saying, ‘Even if this process is bad for the people who live near it, who cares? There are not enough of them to matter to us.’”

In response, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn submitted his own letter to the Gazette-Mail. In it, he claims that because the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences already reviewed some of the studies, the additional review by the NAS (which is independent and non-governmental) is unnecessary. “We applaud and support legitimate efforts to improve health and safety in and around mines, but this study was a symbolic gesture left over from an anti-coal administration,” Quinn wrote.

Quinn wants it to seem like the NMA cares about miners and coal communities. But nothing could be further from the truth. The NMA openly opposes multiple efforts that would benefit coal communities.

The National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences study Quinn mentioned in his letter does not actually make additional review unnecessary. Rather, that study concluded:

Improved characterization of exposures by future community health studies and further study of the effects of MTR mining chemical mixtures in experimental models will be critical to determining health risks of MTR mining to communities. Without such work, uncertainty will remain regarding the impact of these practices on the health of the people who breathe the air and drink the water affected by MTR mining.

The much more robust review being conducted by the NAS was a step toward conducting some of that work.

More than two dozen peer-reviewed studies show strong links between living near mountaintop removal mines and suffering from negative health effects. The industry likes to suggest that regional health disparities are due to other problems, but researchers control for these socioeconomic factors. Poverty and public health issues are critical problems in Central Appalachia, but they have been problems for decades, even when the coal industry was booming. An economy based on a single extractive industry has done little to lift the region out of poverty, despite what the industry may claim.

One example of how the NMA is holding coal communities back is its opposition to the RECLAIM Act, a bill that would direct $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund over the next five years to reclaim post-mined land for the economic benefit of the region. All five members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation are co-sponsors of the RECLAIM Act.

Not only does the NMA oppose the RECLAIM Act, it opposes the Abandoned Mine Land Fund as a whole. The fund is dependent on a tax on current coal production, and the revenue is spent on mines abandoned by coal companies prior to the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977. Without the fund, taxpayers would likely be responsible for the cleanup of these sites.

The NMA claims that the fund has been mismanaged since coal companies have paid in more than $10 billion while only $2.8 billion has been spent on priority sites. Priority 1 sites pose a direct risk to human health and safety — an open mine portal or unstable land near communities, for example. Thankfully, these sites do not make up the majority of abandoned mine lands. Much of the land does not pose a direct threat to people, but it does hamper economic growth; it may be unsuitable for development in its current condition or deter nearby growth. Many sites have ongoing problems with soil and water contamination, erosion and revegetation.

In reality, $8 billion of the fund has been distributed, including $5 billion distributed to states and tribes and more than $1.4 billion transferred to the United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds. So, the NMA is upset that $1.4 billion has been spent to ensure that miners have health care and retirement benefits, rather than for Priority 1 sites...

International action on Just Transition: what’s been accomplished, and proposals for the future

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 27, 2017

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? A Guide to National Policies and International Climate Governance  was released on September 19 by the International Trade Union Confederation, summarizing what has been done to date by the ITUC and through  international agencies such as the  ILO, UNFCCC, and the  Paris Agreement.  It also provides short summaries of some transition situations, including the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Hazelwood workers in the LaTrobe Valley, Australia, U.S. Appalachian coal miners and the coal mining pension plan, Argentinian construction workers, and Chinese coal workers.  Finally, the report calls for concrete steps to advance Just Transition and workers’ interests.

The report defines Just Transition on a national or regional scale, as  “an economy-wide process that produces the plans, policies and investments that lead to a future where all jobs are green and decent, emissions are at net zero, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient.” But the report also argues that Just Transition is important for companies, with social dialogue and collective bargaining as key tools to manage the necessary industrial transformation at the organizational level.  To that end, the ITUC is launching “A Workers Right To Know” as an ITUC campaign priority for 2018, stating, “Workers have a right to know what their governments are planning to meet the climate challenge and what the Just Transition measures are. Equally, workers have a right to know what their employers are planning, what the impact of the transition is and what the Just Transition guarantees will be. And workers have a right to know where their pension funds are invested with the demand that they are not funding climate or job destruction.”

The ITUC report makes new proposals. It calls on the ILO to take a more ambitious role and to negotiate a Standard for Just Transition by 2021, carrying on from the Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies forAll  (2015).   The ITUC also states “expectations” of how Just Transition should be given greater priority in the international negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), so that:  Just Transition commitments are incorporated into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries; Just Transition for workers becomes a permanent theme within the forum on response measures under the Paris Agreement, and Just Transition is included in the 2018 UNFCCC Facilitative Dialogue. It also calls for the launch of a “Katowice initiative for a Just Transition” at the COP23 meetings to take place in Katowice, Poland in 2018, “to provide a high-level political space”.  Finally, the ITUC calls for expansion of the eligibility criteria of the Green Climate Fund to allow  the funding of Just Transition projects.

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? is a Climate Justice Frontline Briefing from the International Trade Union Confederation, with support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and is based upon Strengthening Just Transition Policies in International Climate Governance by Anabella Rosemberg, published as a Policy Analysis Brief by the Stanley Foundation in 2017.

This Former Coal Miner’s Perspective on Climate Change

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

I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.

I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who seek a profit from extracting coal, oil, or natural gas, tell us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.

Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.

People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers.

When it comes to climate change, people rationalize their opinions based on how it affects them. For those of us in Appalachia, the way climate change is affecting us is almost always perceived through the “War on Coal.” Surprisingly, no one seems keen enough to try to navigate around that communications framework with any amount of credibility.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pages