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The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal

By Gwynn Guilford - Quartz, December 30, 2017

The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.

His people had settled the Clintwood and George’s Fork area, along the Appalachian edge of southern Virginia, in the early 17th century. Around the turn of the 1900s, smooth-talking land agents from back east swept through the area, coaxing mountain people into selling the rights to the ground beneath them for cheap. One of Mullins’ ancestors received 12 rifles and 13 hogs—one apiece for each of his children, plus a hog for himself—in exchange for the rights to land that has since produced billions of dollars worth of coal.

“I probably ended up mining a lot of that coal,” says Mullins, a broad-shouldered, bearded 38-year-old with an easy smile.

There were other ironies to savor too. Mullins was a fifth-generation coal miner. But growing up in the 1990s, his father and uncles—all of them miners—begged him not to get into coal mining.

“No one wanted to see you in the mines,” he says. “And they were all union miners too—had it good for a long time.” Those protections were gone by the time Mullins was growing up. The US government’s ongoing assault on organized labor through the 1980s and 1990s meant that the mammoth energy conglomerates that dominated the coal industry were free to open non-union mines with increasing impunity. But mining was still just as rough—replete with injuries, accidents, and black lung deaths.

During the coal bust in the 1990s, Mullins’ dad was laid off from Bethlehem Steel’s mines. Mullins recalls living off the green beans his family had diligently canned during the good times, and watching his parents grow desperate. Go to college, they urged him. Mining offered no future.

Mullins planned on following their advice. But he, like so many of his friends, family, and neighbors, soon found that the industry that has wreaked havoc on the economy of central Appalachia—comprised of southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky—was also nearly impossible to escape.

Trump claims he’s fighting for coal miners, but he’s reevaluating the rule protecting them from black lung

By Mark Hand - Think Progress, December 15, 2017

The Trump administration intends to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

As part of his mission to drastically cut federal regulations, President Donald Trump appeared to indicate Thursday that he is willing to risk greater harm to workers, including stymieing efforts to reduce black lung in coal communities, to appease his deep-pocketed corporate supporters. This anti-regulation effort stands in stark relief to Trump’s rhetoric — starting in his days on the campaign trail — that continually portrays himself as pro-coal miner.

Plans to reexamine a mine safety dust rule rule, implemented three years ago, were highlighted in an anti-regulation agenda released Thursday by the Trump administration. At a White House event, Trump touted his administration’s progress in cutting regulations, saying he wants to return the federal government to the level of regulations that existed in 1960.

In August 2014, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) respirable dust rule went into effect. The long-delayed rule sought to lower miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust, the primary cause of black lung disease, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. According to statistics, black lung is a disease that has been a contributing factor in the death of more than 76,000 coal miners since 1968.

The Trump administration said MSHA, an agency of the Department of Labor tasked with regulating and enforcing health and safety issues for the nation’s mining sector, will be conducting a “retrospective review” of the landmark final rule, officially known as the “Lowering Miners’ Exposure to the Respirable Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors.”

Ken Ward Jr. reported Thursday in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the Trump administration will be reviewing the safety rules at the same time as a resurgence in lung disease among coal miners, especially in West Virginia and other Appalachian coal states.

How should communities cope with the end of coal? Advice from the frontlines

By Amelia Urry - Grist, December 12, 2017

The Mon Valley in western Pennsylvania was once at the center of an industrial revolution that put the United States on the map, but you might have trouble picking out some of its towns on that map now.

“These communities have been neglected by everybody,” says Veronica Coptis, the executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice and a longtime resident of Greene County. She grew up among the emptied-out towns that first sprung up beside the steel factories and coal mines that once lined the Monongahela River for miles.

Now those steel plants are gone, and many of the mines have closed. The coal mines still in operation are largely mechanized, operated by an ever-dwindling number of non-unionized laborers. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in Greene and Washington Counties, works to protect the rights of people living in mining towns, filing legal challenges and advocating for better policy from the state government.

The work does not make Coptis popular with all of her neighbors.

“My rule of thumb is that I will have any conversation with anyone, but I will not be yelled at,” Coptis tells me. She spends a lot of her time having hard conversations with coal miners who distrust environmental activists on principle, until they realize she is a local fighting for the future of her home.

“Almost all of our staff live in the community, and most of our board of directors and our volunteers” Coptis says. “Our organization is really rooted here.”

Coptis became an activist after the lake in her local Ryerson Station State Park — popular as a local boating and fishing retreat — was drained in 2005 to make way for coal mining. The recreation supported by the lake was one of the only economic activities not linked to mining in the area, and its disappearance left Greene County in even more precarious straits than before.

Coal generation makes up about a third of the United States’ power supply — a share that has been shrinking thanks to a boom in natural gas, among other factors. As the end of coal looks more and more inevitable, so does the need for “just transitions.” That is, the engineering of fair economic and environmental conditions for communities who have historically relied on fossil fuel extraction.

This is what Coptis’ work comes down to: an effort to build a better future for people whose lives have always been entwined with the fortunes of the coal industry.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read our cover story on Germany’s just transition here: Life After Coal.

Appalachia’s Coalfields Weren’t Always Red

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 15, 2017

Since the last presidential election, I’ve witnessed a near constant stream of ridicule against Appalachian people who voted for Trump, “They are getting what they deserve,” “They had a choice and they chose a lying bigot,” “They screwed us all.”  I have even been told “We don’t have time to deal with them (Trump voters). We have bigger problems to fix.” All of these statements are dismissive of Appalachian people and stereotype us as being ignorant, egotistical, and even racist. It is not surprising that these comments have come from people who did not grow up in the mountains, who have not had to face the same limited choices we’ve had to face, let alone work a single shift in a non-union mine to achieve at least some form of stability for their family.

Earlier this week I wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled “Don’t Tell Coal Country, ‘That’s What You Get for Voting for Trump!’”  My intent was to help people understand how their attitude toward Appalachians reinforces notions of liberal/progressive elitism—something we have long suffered from since the earliest stereotyping of our region and the indignity of the “War on Poverty.”

You can imagine then, how disheartened I was to see that my Huff Post article garnered the same derisive comments as the election. What’s more, many of the statements came from people who I thought were critically thinking, sympathetic, non-violent, social justice advocates that held themselves to a higher moral standard. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse a good cause with actual humility.

If I were to let this recent dejection fester itself into defiance, I myself would put a Trump sign in my own front yard and scream at the top of my lungs, “F**k all y’all.” And that is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make for the past five years.

Members speak out to protect climate, clean energy jobs

By staff - Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, December 11, 2017

In the final week of November, KFTC members Russell Oliver, Stanley Sturgill, Henry Jackson, Teri Blanton, Roger Ohlman, Mary Dan Easley and Mary Love converged in Charleston, West Virginia – alongside hundreds of other concerned people – to testify to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the agency’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

“Now that we have cleaner, safer and cheaper ways to generate energy, the only question should be: how can we create more of those new jobs right here and right now in Appalachia? I know this because not only have I lived it, I’m still trying my best to keep living it,” said Stanley Sturgill of Harlan County, a retired coal miner and KFTC member.

Sturgill and others urged the EPA not to eliminate the Clean Power Plan rule. Issued in 2014, the plan is an Obama administration regulation that calls on states to develop plans for modestly reducing their carbon pollution. Most would do that through energy efficiency programs, development of solar and wind power, and reducing the amount of coal burned. States have lots of flexibility on how they choose to meet the standard.

Kentucky’s utilities would be required to reduce their carbon dioxide pollution by 31 percent by 2030 from the baseline of 2012 – something that will mostly be achieved anyway through coal plant retirements that have already happened or have been recently announced.

But, to meet or exceed the standard, the state also needs to adopt some new policies and strategies to reduce energy consumption and get more from renewable energy.

Instead, the EPA is proposing to do away with the rule, which has never actually been implemented due to court challenges. What’s more, the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan has not followed the in-depth public engagement process that went into creating the plan.

KFTC member Mary Love pointed this out in her testimony to the EPA.

From the Valleys to the Beaches, New Coal Mines Bring Fear not Hope

By Mat Hope - DeSmog UK, November 29, 2017

In 2015, the UK government promised to phase out coal power. In April this year, the country had its first coal power-free day since the industrial revolution. Last month, climate minister Claire Perry stood with 20 of her international counterparts and promised to “power past coal”.

The British coal industry is dead, isn’t it?

In the UK, there is the impression that the streams of miners leaving the pits like grubby-faced lords of the underworld are a thing of the past. That the pickets, police, projectiles and — ultimately — poverty, are the stuff of history textbooks. And that the trucks, noise, dust, and heaps of blackened spoil exist only in isolated pockets of the isle… and not for much longer.

Yet, in two communites hundreds of miles apart, residents are confronted with a very different picture.

In Wales’ lush green valleys, there is electrician Eddy Blanche, telling me how he’s given his all in a fight to save his granddaughter’s future. There is hometown oldboy Roy Thomas, carefully photographing all the rubble, mudslides, and other miscallaneous fallout from the huge open hole next to his home. And there is Isobel Tarr and her campaigner colleagues, offering a helping hand, trying to think of new ways to make this industry stop. Now.

Then, a six-hour drive to the North East on a beautiful stretch of Northumbrian coast, there is craft worker Lynne Tate, walking her dogs on the beach every day, before pouring over the details of a traffic survey back home. There is Rob Noyes, recently graduated and working full-time now as an environmental coordinator, still raging from his student days at the hypocrisy of companies stuck in the past. And Andrew Stark, up for Uni, wondering why the concerns of his generation continue to be ignored.

The two groups have never met, but they have one thing binding them: opencast coal mining. As far as they are concerned, coal is alive and kicking — hard.

In Poland’s coal heartland, miners defend their jobs but imagine a greener future

By staff - Climate Change News, December 5, 2017

Marek Wystyrk, 44, began mining at 18 and worked underground for nine years. He got a degree and worked his way up Kompania Węglowa, Poland’s largest coal mining company, to become a transport coordinator.

Coming from the Upper Silesian town of Rydułtowy, he believes Poland should keep exploiting its coal reserves, which could last for decades. Wystyrk has seen the deprivation left by mines closing nearby.

At the same time, he is preparing his three children for life after coal. “I asked my son to study environmental protection,” says Wystyrk about the eldest, who is at a vocational school. “But I don’t know what will come out of that, because he loves theatre. My own father told me not to become a miner, but I did it anyway.”

Wystyrk’s ambivalence is common in Upper Silesia, Poland’s hard coal heartland. The people are proud of their industrial heritage but increasingly aware of its polluting legacy; torn between defending the jobs they know and creating a greener future.

It is a tension that will come under the spotlight in December 2018, when regional centre Katowice hosts the annual UN climate change summit.

The Polish government has committed to keeping the coal industry alive.

“The Polish mining and power industry have good prospects,’ said prime minister Beata Szydło – herself the daughter of a Silesian miner – in August at a mining event in Katowice. “We want to build the Polish power industry and economy based on a safe energy mix where hard coal and lignite will have a prominent place.”

Her Law and Justice Party (PiS) positions itself as a champion of the country’s coal miners, which numbered nearly 100,000 in 2015, according to industry group Euracoal. The domestically produced fuel is seen as key to Poland’s energy security.

But state support comes at a cost: financial, environmental and political.

Polish hard coal is expensive. It costs $76 a tonne to dig out, according to the World Bank, compared to an international price of around $50. Mining companies are making unsustainable losses.

Last year, in a reform meant to alleviate the debt accrued, PiS transferred Kompania Węglowa’s 11 mines in Upper Silesia to a newly created company, Polska Grupa Górnicza (PGG), and had state utilities cover some of the financial losses. The least profitable mines were transferred to a restructuring company, with a view to closure.

A toxic smog settles on the region every winter. While locals tend to blame traffic, much of the air pollution comes from burning low-quality coal in household stoves for heating. Coal power stations add to the problem, causing 5,800 premature deaths a year across Poland, according to research by ClientEarth.

And coal burning drives climate change. That may seem an abstract problem to Poles, but it is a major source of tension with Brussels. Warsaw frequently lobbies for carve-outs from EU climate policy to benefit its coal industry – and other member states push back.

Back in Upper Silesia, miners watching the government’s restructuring plan are hoping for the best but waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“We were told we will keep our jobs even if some mines close, but we are anyway worried that we could be fired in the future,” says Eugeniusz Gruchel, head of the ZZG trade union at Chwałowice mine.

“People keep saying that miners make good money, but the reality is different: young miners coming to work here leave after one or two paychecks because they can make more elsewhere or abroad,” Gruchel adds. “We should keep the young here, to work for us and for Poland.”

EPA Holds Lone Hearing on Clean Power Plan Repeal

By Kevin Ridder - Appalachian Voices, December 1, 2017

Scott Pruitt has been trying to get rid of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan even before he was head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And in October, he unveiled his proposed repeal, telling a crowd of eastern Kentucky coal miners that the Clean Power Plan “was not about regulating to make things regular. It was about regulating to pick winners and losers.”

But by repealing the plan and his management of the EPA in general, what is Pruitt doing if not favoring fossil fuels over renewables?

For the proposed repeal, it seems a cornerstone of his strategy is to make sure the public has as little voice as possible in the process. While the Obama administration held 11 public listening sessions and four public hearings nationwide before finalizing the Clean Power Plan in 2015, Pruitt has scheduled only one public hearing for its proposed repeal.

The Coal Industry Mantra: Jobs First, Safety…well….

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, November 20, 2017

Nothing quite says conflict of interest more than installing a former mine company executive as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Anyone who has worked in a coal mine knows that only loyalty to the company bottom line could raise someone from the ranks of a coal miner to that of a CEO. Coal miners also know that when it comes right down to it, a safe working record takes back seat to the number of extra hours you put in and how well you produce coal. Safety takes time, and time costs the company money.

Over 104,000 miners have been killed in this country’s coal mines since 1900. We’ve seen tragedy as recent as Upper Big Branch, Crandall Canyon, and Sago. All of these travesties could have been prevented had company executives put the safety of the worker ahead of production and financial gain.

The image featured at the top of this post shows the Hurricane Creek Miners Memorial a few miles outside of Hyden, Kentucky. For some, the memorial serves as a reminder of the 38 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who lost their lives on a cold December day in 1970. For others, it symbolizes one of the greatest flaws within our nation’s history of mine safety legislation.

The Hurricane Creek mine explosion occurred a year to the day following the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. The act, a piece of legislation that could only be considered reactionary to the 1968 Farmington Disaster, was the most sweeping piece of mine safety legislation that had ever been put forth in our country. It mandated new safety equipment, new enforcement protocols, monetary fines for noncompliance, and it even began taking into account health issues to include black lung.

Yet despite its being passed, 260 miners died in our nation’s coal mines the following year—including the 38 men at Hurricane Creek.

Even though the act saw to it that laws and regulations were put into place, very little funding was given to the newly formed Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA). Without proper funding, the agency was woefully understaffed, lacking the necessary resources to inspect each mine and enforce the new laws. It was only after mine safety advocates, such as the United Mine Workers and widows of the fallen miners, raised hell about it, that more funding was put to the purpose. Even then, it was still not enough.

Seven years later, the Scotia disaster would lead to the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Yet again, funding issues plagued mine safety enforcement agencies.  It wouldn’t be until 2007— 40 years later—that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would receive enough funding to hire the number of inspectors necessary to perform all the mine inspections mandated by law. That funding only came as a reaction to the Sago disaster in 2006 where rescue efforts were nationally televised.

Time and time again we see the reactionary nature of mine safety legislation and funding. Even today, companies and politicians work in concert to weaken mine safety laws. Kentucky has reduced the number of inspections required by their state mine safety agencies, and West Virginia has attempted to completely eliminate theirs. Trump’s nomination of Zatezalo and his subsequent confirmation by Senate Republicans, all work to prove that little has changed.

I fear for coal miners today, more than I have in years. Right now, there are thousands of miners desperately seeking work. Coal companies are aware of the abundant labor market and are undoubtedly taking advantage of it. I’m sure the companies are preaching safety as they always do, threatening that any miner caught taking shortcuts will be fired. Then they remind miners that any upcoming layoffs will be based upon individual performance.

If there was ever a more crucial time for mine safety agencies to step up for the miner and enforce the laws that are meant to protect them, it is now. I feel many federal and state inspectors know this and are trying, but they are becoming increasingly powerless as politicians continue to cut budgets and impair mine safety laws.

The Spotted Owl or: How the Right Won the Working Class

By staff - Cited, November 17, 2017

Judi Bari’s effort to ally forest workers and environmentalists could have changed the course of climate activism forever. Could her parable help us today? 

Cited teams up with Dissent’s Hot and Bothered podcast and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions to tell the story of tree spiking, a Texas millionaire, and the Northern Spotted Owl.

In this hour we look at the jobs vs. environment problem and explore how forest management might be able to mitigate climate change on a massive scale. with documentary filmmaker Mary Liz Thomson, University of Oregon sociology professor John Bellamy Foster, and independent forester Herb Hammond.

Listen to the podcast here.

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