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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.

DOJ Withdraws Funding Request for Kentucky Prison on Mountaintop-Removal Site

By Zoe Loftus-Farren - Truthout, June 30, 2017

Last month the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) withdrew its request for funding for construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in eastern Kentucky.

The proposed $444 million facility, planned for Letcher County, has faced ongoing opposition from environmental and human rights organizations who have expressed a wide range of concerns about potential ecological and health impacts of the project. "Building this prison would have been terrible for the health of prisoners, the surrounding community and all the wildlife in the area," said Lori Ann Bird, who is environmental health program director with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Read Earth Island Journal and Truthout's special investigation into America's toxic prisons.

The Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people held in US detention facilities, pointed to the history of mining-related pollution in the area -- including contamination of drinking water that could be used for the prison. The Human Rights Defense Center also noted the ongoing risk posed by more than a dozen active gas wells near the proposed site, as well as possible radon intrusion linked to coal mining in the area.

In a comment filed in response to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) 2015 environmental impact statement for the facility, opponents also cited impacts on the local community -- including potential water pollution from the prison itself -- as well as on nearby habitat and wildlife. Two federally endangered species, the Indiana bat and the gray bat, are found in the region, as are some 60 other species with varying levels of state and federal protections. 

"It's a pretty huge step toward victory," Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center, said of the DOJ's decision to abandon the plan.

The Prison Ecology Project and the Center for Biological Diversity point to growing local opposition, in conjunction with a coordinated campaign by advocates, as triggering the withdrawal. "This has been a tremendous effort by a lot of diverse groups coming together to oppose this prison, and shows the powerful impact we can achieve when the community comes together with activists from around the country to oppose a destructive project," Bird said.

In its announcement of the withdrawal of its request for funding, the DOJ cited a declining prison population over the past several years, and noted that the BOP could expand capacity at existing facilities and through private prisons if necessary. (The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a subdivision of the US Department of Justice.)

Not everyone has expressed support for the DOJ's decision. Local representative Hal Rogers (R-KY) argues that overcrowding in federal prisons necessitates new construction. In a June hearing on the Department of Justice's fiscal year 2018 budget, Representative Rogers argued that the project should proceed, emphasizing that Congress had already appropriated funding for the prison: "Congress has decided this and it's the Congress that controls the purse strings of the country… The money is there -- appropriated, authorized, everything in order." Rogers has also noted that the prison would be an important source of new jobs for an economically moribund region (though research shows that prisons generally don't improve the local economy and are, in fact, more likely to harm rather than help host communities).  

Opponents of the project remain cautiously optimistic while acknowledging that the victory may be temporary -- Congress hasn't yet passed the 2018 budget, and there's always the possibility that the DOJ could reverse course again at a later time. For now, the Prison Ecology Project is setting its sights on the next battle or battles, which might include: FMC Carswell, a women's prison in Texas built on a military base and surrounded by Superfund sites; a proposal to build a new prison on a landfill in Utah; a Hawaiian prison where the BOP has tried to skirt the environmental review process; and a proposal to build a women's jail on a toxic Superfund site in Los Angeles County.   

Tsolkas thinks the Letcher County win will lend momentum to these other fights. "The DOJ said basically they don't want the prison, they don't need it…. That's a powerful position to be fighting from."

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.

Without the Union…

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 20, 2016

By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It  didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.

At one time, it seemed as though there were more union miners than non-union in central Appalachia. Throughout the mid-1970s and 80s, dozens of large union mining complexes (mines with attached coal preparation facilities and rail service) were operating in the region. These complexes employed thousands of men, and many women.

As I understood it, life was good for those who worked at the complexes. Miners made a union wage, had union benefits including guaranteed days off, voluntary overtime, excellent retirement and healthcare benefits, and worker’s rights that enhanced the safety culture at the mine. The sheer size of the complexes also gave the miner’s many amenities not found at smaller truck mines, including large “clean” and “dirty” locker rooms with heated floors, showering facilities, and even paved parking lots. But they weren’t to last. The seams that supported larger facilities were rapidly depleted as more mechanized forms of mining, such as long wall systems, were being implemented.

And then the coal markets busted.

Solidarity is the new I love you

By Dano T Bob - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, December 15, 2015

Hey Kentucky, I’ve got good news for ya! The death of coal companies has been largely exaggerated, it turns out your coal companies are fine, they are just busy destroying Utah and Oakland now. Oh, and New Mexico and Colorado, too, just as they have destroyed the health and environment of Appalachia for decades. Now, after destroying Kentucky’s economy and abandoning communities via a vanishing act, and leaving that mess behind, we’ve figured out where they are and what they are up to, well at least one of them.

Bowie Resource Partners, a decidedly non union company, based in Louisville, Kentucky, has recently popped up in Oakland, California, with a plan to ship in their Utah coal via rail through working class communities of color in West Oakland to a proposed coal export terminal to be built for shipping coal to China, India, etc. Far from going out business, Bowie is currently expanding and buying new mines out west, while coal field communities in Appalachia are suffering devastating economic times.

I’ve previously blogged about this for OVEC back during the last Oakland City Council hearing, which was jam packed with hundreds of residents waiting hours to speak. It turns out that hot button environmental justice issues will do that. Yeah, it turns out that the health and environmental impacts of breathing toxic coal dust has a lot of West Oaklanders pretty damn pissed off. These same communities fighting against police violence to let the world know that #blacklivesmatter, now need to tell Bowie Natural Resource to respect black lives, black health and black neighborhoods as well. West Oakland was the birthplace of the Black Panther party, afterall.

Louisville, Kentucky, with the largest black population in the state, with many historically living in West Louisville, is no stranger to environmental injustice as well. The West End is not only home to most of the environmental hotspots in the city, there is also currently “a campaign to block recycling food waste into methane at a facility in western Louisville.” So, black lives are being disrespected in a lot of the same ways by similar corporate assholes from Louisville all the way to Oakland, and this has to stop.

EcoUnionist News #71 - Don Blankenship on Trial

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, October 19, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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Study Ties Mountaintop Removal Mining Dust To Increased Risk Of Lung Cancer

By Katie Valentine - Think Progress, October 17, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Mountaintop removal mining destroys forest ecosystems and clogs streams with often toxic mining waste. And according to a new study, it also increases a person’s risk of lung cancer.

The study, published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, looks at the carcinogenic potential of the particulate matter that enters the air during mountaintop removal mining, a form of surface mining that blasts the tops of mountains away so that underground coal reserves can be accessed. The study found “new evidence” that breathing in this particulate matter over an extended period of time can lead to lung cancer, confirming previous research that has found increased cases of lung cancer in communities that live near coal mining operations in Appalachia. That research noted that smoking rates in these communities are likely also contributing to the lung cancer risk, making exposure to mining operations only one of the variables involved, but this week’s research confirms, for the first time, that dust from mining operations can drive up a person’s risk of lung cancer.

“It’s a risk factor, with other risk factors, that increases the risks of getting lung cancer,” study co-author and West Virginia University cancer researcher Yon Rojanasakul told the Charleston Gazette. “That’s what the results show.”

The researchers exposed lung cells to dust from mountaintop removal operations over a three-month period. They found that the dust had “cell-transforming and tumor-promoting effects” — it led to certain changes in the cells that promoted lung cancer development.

“As more than 60,000 cancer cases has been estimated to correlate with MTM [mountaintop removal] activities in West Virginia, this finding on the cancer promoting effect of [particulate matter] and related epidemiological data are crucial to raise public health awareness to reduce cancer risk,” the study’s authors write.

Environmentalists and some Appalachian residents have fought against mountaintop removal, which is considered to be the most destructive way to extract coal, for years. According to anti-mountaintop removal group Appalachian Voices, the practice has destroyed more than 500 mountains so far in central and southern Appalachia. Blowing up the tops of these mountains obliterates temperate forest ecosystems that are among the most biologically diverse in the world.

Laid Off

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 23, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Over the past four years we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits with difficult decisions to make. For as long as the coal industry has existed they have placed the people of Appalachia at the mercy of their booms and busts. Each time coal companies face a choice between decent profits now or leaving the coal in the ground until they can make excellent profits, we know what they choose, and we see what happens to the decent hard working coal miners who have already given so much of themselves to the company’s bottom line.

Had these layoffs come 75 or 100 years ago, they would have hurt, but the blow to mountain families would not have not been nearly as severe. Our ancestors had been weary of becoming entirely dependent upon coal mining wages for their food supply and shelter. They didn’t trust banks. They’d known the bondage placed on them by company script, company stores, and perpetual debt. For many, it was a matter of pride to be without debt, for others it was a source of freedom.

As my grandfather tried to teach us, “It’s your wants that get you in trouble, not your needs.” But theirs was also a different time. When they lived, there were still enough woods to hunt in and run their hogs. The water coming out of the mountain sides and out of family wells was still good enough to drink. Extended families still owned enough land to graze mule teams and a dairy cow, and they could still plant enough food for themselves and sometimes for their livestock. Today, many of the miners being sent home from the coal mines do not have a farm to go home to. They cannot spend their idle time using their hands to provide for their family in the traditional ways. Each day the mail carrier brings another bill, another reminder of the life they’ve been forced to lead at the mercy of “progress.”

Wave of layoffs sweeps North American coal industry

By Clement Daily - World Socialist Website, August 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources—the second-largest US coal producer—announced last month that it intended to lay off approximately 1,100 coal miners and support staff at 11 affiliated coal mining operations in southern West Virginia by mid-October. These job cuts are only the most drastic in a wave of layoffs sweeping through the coal industry this year.

In a press release, Alpha President Paul Vining noted that in the last three years the company has idled about 35 million tons of coal production in an effort to cut costs. These moves underlay the closing of eight mines and a similar mass layoff of 1,200 coal miners in 2012. Moreover, these layoffs come on the heels of the company’s announcement in late June that it was permanently closing its Cherokee Mine in Dickenson County, Virginia, cutting about 120 jobs.

Similarly, Coal River Mining announced last week it planned to eliminate 280 mining positions at its operations in Kanawha, Boone and Lincoln counties in West Virginia. This comes on top of more than 150 layoffs by the company last year.

In July, Cumberland River Coal—a subsidiary of US mining giant Arch Coal—announced it was idling two mines at its complex on the Virginia-Kentucky border, eliminating 213 positions.

In June, St. Louis-based Patriot Coal confirmed it was laying off 75 of the nearly 850 workers to whom the company had issued layoff notices at its Corridor G and Wells mining complexes in Boone County, West Virginia. Back in May, after posting $116 million in first-quarter profits, CONSOL Energy cut production at its Buchanan Mine near Oakwood, Virginia, eliminating 188 jobs.

All these layoffs and production cuts occur in Appalachia, where the coal industry remains in a protracted structural decline driven by thinning seams and higher production costs. According to statistics compiled by Sean O’Leary of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, Central Appalachian productivity stood at just 2 short tons per labor hour in 2012, compared to more than 4 short tons in the Illinois Basin and nearly 30 short tons in the Powder River Basin (Wyoming-Montana).

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts that coal production in Central Appalachia—comprised mainly of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky—will decline to half its 2010 level by the end of the present decade.

However, the decline of Central Appalachian coal production takes place within a broader crisis facing the US coal industry. Thermal coal used in electricity generation faces increasing competition for domestic energy production as the list of aging coal-fired power plant retirements grows under the pressure of cheap and abundant natural gas. The EIA projects natural gas will surpass coal in its share of domestic energy production by 2035.

UBS Backs Away From Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining - Victory for Grassroots Organizing, Campaigners Say More Action Still Needed from UBS

By Ricki Draper - Hands off Appalachia, August 13, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Knoxville, TN — UBS, the world's third top funder of mountaintop removal in 2011, has taken steps demonstrating its commitment to significantly reduce financing of the mining practice. Last month, the bank confirmed to environmental campaigners that it will continue backing away from mountaintop removal financing. Moreover, UBS has declined to participate in the most recent transactions with its former clients Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal, which were among the top producers of mountaintop removal coal in 2013.

"UBS' statement is a step in the right direction on mountaintop removal, but it’s the bank's actions that show they’re following through," said Ricki Draper of Hands off Appalachia. "We have seen that grassroots organizing can make a difference in stopping the financing of this deadly form of mining that poisons coalfield communities and contributes to the destruction of Appalachia’s culture and heritage."

The victory comes after three years of grassroots organizing by Hands Off Appalachia and Mountain Justice targeting the financing of mountaintop removal. Starting in Knoxville, TN, the Hands off Appalachia campaign has organized dozens of actions and protests at local UBS offices across Appalachia and the southeast. In the summer of 2013, members of the campaign were arrested during a protest at UBS's Knoxville, TN office. Shortly afterwards, four members of the Connecticut-based group Capitalism vs. the Climate blocked the entrance to UBS's North American headquarters in Stamford, CT and were arrested.

On November 25, 2014, members of Hands off Appalachia, Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, and Capitalism vs. the Climate took action in Stamford, sitting-in at the UBS office and hanging a banner from a nearby 20-story construction crane. Police arrested 14 activists in connection to the protest.

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