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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.

‘I closed my eyes and waited for the bullet’

By Thumeka Magwangqana and Primrose Sonti - Open Democracy, August 16, 2017

Five years ago today, 34 mine workers were shot dead in South Africa during a bitter dispute with British firm Lonmin. Today their community is taking their demands for accountability to the firm’s HQ.

In August 2012, mine workers at British company Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in South Africa went on strike to demand the living wage. In the week leading up to 16 August, the workers tried to access the managers’ offices but they were pushed back by security. This was where the battle began.

Pushed back from the managers’ offices, the mine workers decided to go to the koppie, a small mountain near Lonmin’s mine, outside the company’s premises. They were there for a few days waiting for management to reply to their demands, and the rest of us in the community were not allowed to go near them. Every day when the men came down from that mountain, we asked them to tell us what was going on. Ten people were killed between 12 – 14 August, including two police officers.

We watched what was happening on TV constantly and in the afternoon of 15 August, we saw a crowd of people. Horses and police officers were growing in number on the koppie and, as women and leaders of the community, we were very upset. We were waiting for good news, for the management to make good decisions.

Early in the morning of 16 August, we saw the barbed wire encircling the koppie and we knew that people there were going to die. We collected the women of the community and, as leaders, we said that we should go straight to Lonmin management and tell them that if they didn’t want to give the mine workers the extra money, then it was better that we take them home because the situation had become so bad.

We collected the women and when we met near the mountain, we were too late. We heard the bullets, and then the ambulances.

Thirty-four mine workers were shot dead.

We couldn’t get there afterwards, there was a large crowd and we were told not go there, that it was very hectic. We turned back and didn’t sleep that night. Early in the morning, we went to see the police at the koppie and were fighting with them, trying everything. Then we cried.

We went to the police stations and hospitals to look for the missing. We were looking for a guy that was staying in the yard of one of our houses. He didn’t come back and we weren’t sure if he died or was in hospital or jail.

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.

Struggling to Stay in Appalachia After Coal Layoffs

By Reid Frazier - Alleghany Front, September 1, 2017

Dave Hathaway is a coal miner in Greene County, in the very southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Apart from a brief stint living in Colorado as a child, he’s lived his whole life there, and he’s never really thought much about leaving.

So when he was laid off in late 2015, he figured he had to find a way to stay there.

The question of what will happen with coal miners and the communities that depend on them has become pointed in recent years, as thousands of mining jobs have been lost in Appalachia and around the country.

The case of Dave Hathaway shows how difficult it can be for miners to find work that can approximate the kind of earning power and stability coal brought them, while fulfilling one important requirement: being able to stay in the place you call home.

Hathaway spent a year looking for work. He put in hundreds of online applications, and tried unsuccessfully to join a union.

He only had one iron-clad rule in his job hunt: he wouldn’t leave Greene County. His family and his wife Ashley’s family are in the area; his son Grant, 11, lives there, too. 

Grant lives with his mother nearby, but he has a room at his dad’s house in Waynesburg. It’s crowded with toys, video game paraphernalia, and Grant’s collection of 2,000 football cards, including the boy’s most prized possession–a Marcus Mariota rookie card.

Living in Greene County means Hathaway can take Grant turkey hunting, play cards with Grant, and go to his son’s wrestling meets, where Hathaway, a former wrestler, could call out holds and maneuvers from the side of the mat.

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.

Germany’s Transition from Coal to Renewable Energy Offers Lessons for the Rest of the World

By Emma Bryce - Ensia, August 10, 2017

The country’s decades-long shift from industrial mining to clean energy has brought both challenge and opportunity.

Seventy-seven-year-old Heinz Spahn — whose blue eyes are both twinkling and stern — vividly recalls his younger days. The Zollverein coal mine, where he worked in the area of Essen, Germany, was so clogged with coal dust, he remembers, that people would stir up a black cloud whenever they moved. “It was no pony farm,” he says — using the sardonic German phrase to describe the harsh conditions: The roar of machines was at a constant 110 decibels, and the men were nicknamed waschbar, or “raccoons,” for the black smudges that permanently adorned their faces.

Today, the scene at Zollverein is very different. Inside the coal washery where Spahn once worked — the largest building in the Zollverein mining complex — the air is clean, and its up to 8,000 miners have been replaced by one-and-a-half million tourists annually. The whole complex is now a UNESCO world heritage site: Spahn, who worked here as a fusion welder until the mine shut down on December 23, 1986, is employed as a guide to teach tourists about its history. “I know this building in and out. I know every screw,” he says fondly.

Zollverein is a symbol of Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy — a program called the Energiewende that aims to have 80 percent of the country’s energy generated from renewables by 2050. That program has transformed Germany into a global poster child for green energy. But what does the transition mean for residents of Essen and the rest of the Ruhr region — the former industrial coal belt — whose lives and livelihoods have been dramatically altered by the reduced demand for coal? The answer to that could hold some useful lessons for those undergoing similar transitions elsewhere.

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.

Ukraine: miners strike back against wage arrears

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, August 4, 2017

Miners in eastern Ukraine have responded to the build-up of wage arrears and steep inflation with strikes and underground protests.

At the Kapustin mine in Lugansk region, 54 miners staged an underground sit in, and forced from their employer, Lisichanskugol’, a promise to cough up wage arrears dating back two years in some cases.

The cash was promised for Wednesday (2 August). But when it came, it was 10% short of the total, and yesterday (3 August) miners again refused to start work.

Vladimir Ivanshin, head of the local Trade Union of Coal Industry Workers (the “official”, government-linked union) said that the 10% shortfall was a “breach of the first point of the agreement” made after the sit-in.

The dispute at Kapustin first erupted on 16 July. A group of face-workers and ancillary underground men refused to leave the pit. The action began “spontaneously” and without any trade union involvement, local media reported. Miners at the Novodruzheskaya pit, owned by the same company, came out in solidarity.

The sit-in at Kapustin lasted six days. All work stopped, except for water pumping and ventilation needed to keep the mine open. A representative of the occupation came up the pit to join talks with the employers and the energy ministry in Kyiv.

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