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Searching for Justice in Appalachia: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

But I never will. I can’t give up.

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

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

Using Miners for Political Gain is Nothing New, Still Repulsive

By Rob Byers - CounterPunch, June 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Out of Our Coal Hole

By Oscar Reyes - CounterPunch, May 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will supporting carbon capture help coal mining communities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coal Industry is a Job Killer

By Basav Sen - CounterPunch, April 28, 2017

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

He was dead wrong on both counts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the Pits: the Miner’s Blues

By Clancy Sigal - CounterPunch, April 25, 2017

Don’t go down in the mine, Dad,
Dreams very often come true;
Daddy, you know it would break my heart
If anything happened to you…

— in honor of 1907 South Wales mining disaster

I’ve never been down an American coal mine, among the least safest in the world, though have plunged thousands  of feet into the dark bowels of British pits in Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland, the world’s safest until they were closed by politicians and bean counters.

I have a selfish interest in coal mining since it was English pit men who first opened up their world to me  and encouraged my first writing.

Deep down in the hard-to-breath darkness at 2000 feet below the surface miners educated me how they’re aseparate culture, with its own taboos and permissions. At the coal face, hand-getting or machine-cutting, I saw them as skilled surgeons, or code breakers using logic to solve life and death problems underground, with super-sensitive ears for the faint early warning crack of a wall collapse or groan in a roof support.

Miners are a special, ancient breed whether in China, Poland or Appalachia; at their union’s strongest, which it’s not now, militant solidarity is bred in their bones. (See the Battle of Blair Mountain where massed miners shot it out with  federal troops and even the US air corps for the right to unionize.)

Gradually I climbed into a social class where “coal” became a dirty word because the getting of the decayed vegetation with its high carbon content became synonymous with earth’s destruction and our asthmatic lungs.

You know, shaved mountain tops, poisoned rivers, massive health costs to miners (black lung, silicosis, injuries) and any of us who has to breathe in the fossil-fuel fumes. Not to mention the harm to climate change.

Gas powered electricity (fracking) is allegedly cheaper. Cleaner, more modern, more accessible. Anyway Appalachian coal is giving out, and privately owned coal companies – whose safety records are an obscenity – daily go bankrupt abandoning their workers’ health benefits. Right now Wyoming with its open cast strip mining produces  more coal than traditional deep pit mines in the eastern mountains.

So what happens to the aging coal miners who voted for Trump on his promise to bring back jobs and restore coal  which none of them believed but had hopes he would care for them in a declining industry?

One of the thousands of reasons Hillary lost was going to coal-mining West Virginia which she won in 2008 and  telling them, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” in the drive for clean energy. The voting miners preferred Trump’s hopeful lie to Clinton’s blunt death sentence. Who wouldn’t?

The gods of coal are vengeful. Today, the 80,000 or so remaining miners, out of a 1970 high of 140,000 and a  1920s high of 700,000, are getting royally screwed by Trump’s rich Republicans. In a word they’re being sent  on a fast ride to the cemetery by the people they voted for in such big numbers.

The Republican congress is twisting miners and their families in the wind by refusing, until the very last moment  and maybe not then, to honor promised federal health benefits that are used to beef up the much used Medicare and Medicaid. The loss of this government money is literally the difference between life and death for men on oxygen or  suffering other coal-related injuries.

A double kick in the face: Trump is also defunding the Appalachian Regional Commission and U.S Economic Development Commission set up specifically to cushion coal’s collapse.

An amazing number of people, still traumatized by Hillary’s defeat, say Trump’s betrayals are only what the miners deserve.  Or as one NYT reader wrote from W. Virginia, “I have run out of patience and empathy for these  people…They’re…ignorant… and generally not interested in anything but being a coal miner, shooting wild animals and each other, getting drunk or high,  and qualifying for disability.”

Oh, have I run into such soured Democrats! They can’t forgive coal miners for voting the wrong way but above all for  being the stubborn rednecks they are. Why can’t they be more like us, and vote the right way and stop being so damn poor?

The Republican agenda is clear. One by one knock off the most vulnerable then the least unionized then the rest of us, all in good time. The Appalachian miners are not our past but our future.

Coal Miners Deserve Better

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, April 24, 2017

In 1989, Pittston Coal (present day Alpha Natural Resources), eliminated the healthcare benefits of all it’s pensioners. This included retirees, disabled miners, and widows. It led to the last major UMWA strike centered in southwestern Virginia, just across the mountain from Eastern Kentucky. 1,400 miners walked off the job, sacrificing their paychecks to restore those benefits to men and women whose lives were given to coal mining.

The old cliche “As much as things change, they stay the same” couldn’t be truer this day in time.

Not only has the coal industry taken away the health benefits for pensioners again, thousands of miners who retired from union mines are facing the possibility of losing their health benefits and pensions. The reasons are many, and there are a lot of fingers being pointed right now. Some want to blame the United Mine Workers for poor fund management, others want to blame the coal companies for busting the unions and eliminating future income into those plans, and a few (including myself) are casting some blame towards the for-profit healthcare industry that’s gone overboard with unnecessary tests and hospital stays to increase their financial gain. In my opinion, it’s all of it, but in the end it doesn’t matter who is to blame. Everyone who has screwed this up has more money than any coal miner will ever see in their lifetime. Why should the coal miners be the ones to suffer the results?

The burden of fixing these problems now falls on the nation who has benefited from the cheap energy and steel that Appalachia has produced. It rests with people waking up to the facts and realizing that coal companies will continually work through corrupt politics to get out of their obligations to their workers.

People deserve better than what the coal companies will ever give them, they deserve some comfort and rest after pulling their time in the mines. Every coal miner should walk off the job tomorrow and not let another ounce of coal make it to market until our fathers and grandfathers are taken care of, until every miner from here on out has guaranteed healthcare, pensions, the right to stop work if things become unsafe, and the guarantee of a healthy severance package the next time a coal company pulls up stakes to save their own wealthy hind-ends.

Actually, everyone in this nation should be raising hell with their politicians. This latest chapter of screwing some of America’s hardest working people should send shock waves through the national consciousness and have everyone up in arms, or at least looking at the voting records of their politicians and jerking the ones out who don’t actually support the working people. Last I checked, there’s way more working people suffering than rich folks. People should be standing up for what’s right and just when it comes to labor and worker safety. Politicians are supposed to serve all the people, not just the ones who line their pockets.

Kicking Them While They’re Down: What Trump is Doing to Appalachia

By Kenneth Surin - CounterPunch, April 11, 2017; Photo by Don O’Brien | CC BY 2.0

Appalachia voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who won it by a resounding 63%-33%.  Appalachia as a region is defined by federal law, and consists of 490 counties in 13 states.  Hillary Clinton won only 21 of these counties.  According to the right-wing Washington Examiner, “She did not win a single county in Appalachia that is mostly white, non-college-educated and has a population of under 100,000 people”.

Political analysts have used a fine-tooth comb to go over the issue of Trump’s popularity with less-educated whites, so there is no need to repeat their findings here.

More interesting, and not so much discussed thus far, is the potential impact on Appalachia of the budgetary policies announced recently by the Trump administration.  In a nutshell:  what’s been announced may “make America great again”, but it almost certainly won’t do this for Appalachia (not that the rest of the country, except for the plutocracy, is likely to benefit either).

Appalachia is one of the poorest regions in the US.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has been earmarked for elimination by Trump, as has the Economic Development Administration (EDA)– more about this later.  The ARC compiles statistics on Appalachian poverty, income, and employment.

According to the ARC 2010-2014 Poverty Rate report, the poverty rate across the US was 15.6% compared to 19.7% in the Appalachian region of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

There are significant variations between different Appalachian states where poverty rates are concerned.  For example, the Virginian statewide rate is 11.5% as opposed to an 18.8% rate for the Appalachian region overall.

(This statistic is however somewhat misleading when used in this way because Virginia’s overall poverty rate is greatly reduced by the economic contribution of affluent northern Virginia (NoVa) with its abundance of well-paid government and tech jobs.  There are “two Virginias” where income disparities are concerned, and the poverty rate in Appalachian Virginia, as opposed to NoVa, is a more accurate 18.8%.)

The state with the worst regional poverty rate is Kentucky with a 25.4% rate in its Appalachian portion as opposed to the 18.9% rate for the rest of the state.

The cause of this poverty is not so much unemployment (though that is a contributing factor), but desperately low income levels.

How the Democrats Lost West Virginia and the Coal Miners To Trump

By Les Leopold - Common Dreams, April 7, 2017

“C’mon, fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You’re going back to work.” ― Donald Trump on signing an executive order to reverse the Obama Administration’s rules on coal, March 28, 2017.

Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 buried Barry Goldwater in West Virginia, 67.9 percent to 32.1 percent. By 2016, Trump completely reversed that landslide by defeating Hillary Clinton 67.9 percent to 26.2 percent. What happened to turn such a deep blue state into flaming red?

The Democratic Party establishment has a simple explanation: West Virginians are so hung up on cultural issues like guns, gays, abortion and their mythical self-image as “coal country” that they vote against their own material interests. They seem impervious to the fact that they are major beneficiaries of Obamacare and Medicaid. They don’t seem to notice that health care jobs far exceed coal-related jobs which have been decimated by new technologies, and market competition from natural gas and renewables.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently writes, “So West Virginia voted overwhelmingly against its own interests. ....Coal country residents.... were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more.”

Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs

By Jill Richardson - CounterPunch, March 30, 2017

When Barack Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, Scientific American used his own words to criticize it for not going far enough.

“There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change,” Obama said. “The science tells us we have to do more.”

Scientific American analyzed the Clean Power Plan and agreed, concluding that Obama’s plan didn’t go far enough, and would fail to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Now, Trump is dismantling even that. Obama’s insufficient effort to address climate change is gone with a stroke of Trump’s pen.

The plan was to go into effect in 2022, reducing pollution in three ways. First, by improving the efficiency of coal-fired power plants. Second, by swapping coal for cleaner natural gas. And third, by replacing fossil fuel energy with clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Trump claims the plan puts coal miners out of work. But it hadn’t even been implemented yet. In reality, cheap natural gas and the use of machines instead of people to mine coal are responsible for putting far more miners out of work.

In other words, Trump is using sympathetic out-of-work miners as a cover for what is really just a handout to dirty industry.

Meanwhile, Trump is cutting job training programs for coal country. Given that, it’s hard to believe he cares at all about jobs for coal miners.

And, with a surge in cases of fatal black lung disease among miners in Appalachia, anyone who truly cared about miners would preserve the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which helps coal miners get black lung benefits.

In short, Trump’s killing of the Clean Power Plan is a handout to dirty industry with no regard for the well-being of coal miners. And it’s putting us even further behind in our efforts to leave the next generation a habitable planet.

A better leader would find a way to promote clean forms of energy while simultaneously creating good jobs for Americans. Of course, that’s exactly what Obama’s one-time “green jobs” czar Van Jones called for, and the Republicans hated him.

But the fact of the matter is that climate-smart policies create jobs. They create jobs retrofitting buildings, manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, innovating to create more efficient batteries, and discovering the best way to upgrade our power grid.

It seems that, if we installed a wind turbine near the White House, Trump could single handedly provide the nation with clean energy from all of the bluster coming out of his mouth.

In the meantime, catastrophic climate change is as much of a crisis as ever, and the clock is ticking.

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