What Will We Do About Coal’s ‘Crisis in the Making’?

Charleston Gazette
16 January 2012
By Ken Ward Jr.

There’s an op-ed in this weekend’s Gazette-Mail that is worth a look — and worth a detailed read by our region’s political leaders. It’s by West Virginia native Lou Martin, who teaches history now in western Pennsylvania at Chatham University. Lou writes of a “crisis in the making” in Boone County, where coal is such a big part of the economy, yet good coal seams are playing out and competition from other regions threatens future production levels:

In May, CNN Money reported that 3,800 of the county’s 8,600 employed people worked in the mining industry. And a report by economists at WVU and Marshall titled “The West Virginia Coal Economy 2008? reported that 60 percent of the county’s roughly $35 million in property tax revenue came from coal. While those figures certainly speak to the importance of coal to Boone today, they also represent the potential for devastation when the coal companies leave. Imagine when half of those jobs and tax revenues disappear as Downstream Strategies predict they will. Boone County will be left with slurry ponds, “reclaimed” mountains and dirty water.

Lou warns:

As a society, we do not plan well for economic transitions; nor do we tend to plan for the long term. Our elected officials have a vested interest in helping businesses and industries that are here now, not imagining future businesses and industries. Coal companies focus only on this year’s profits. Unions protect current members’ jobs. Planning the future of Boone County is too important to leave up to the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, the CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, the president of the United Mine Workers, or even government officials like Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin.

This time, the people need to plan out their own future. What do we want the future economy to look like? I propose that we try to create a society that will last for another 100 years, 200 years, or maybe even 1,000 years. But under the current plan, Boone County will face utter devastation – economic and environmental — in just 25 years.

For those who don’t know him, Lou Martin has written extensively about the working-class people of Appalachia, with a focus on the steel and pottery country of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle (see here, for example).  And, he’s observed what has happened in those parts of the world in recent years, writing in his West Virginia University doctoral dissertation:

Beginning in the 1960s, local potteries began closing up shop until only Homer Laughlin remained. When Weirton Steel showcased its “mill of the future” in 1967, that moment proved to be the high point for the company and its workers. Thereafter, foreign competition, mismanagement, and global economic forces beyond any individual company’s control undercut Weirton Steel’s position in the market. By the 1980s, working families in Hancock County were faced with many tough decisions and sad realities as the winds of “creative destruction,” in the words of economists, picked up thousands of industrial jobs and carried them to the distant frontiers of industrial capitalism. The county’s population declined from about 40,000 in 1980 to about 30,000 in 2000. Many of those who remain are retirees who have watched helplessly as pensions and health insurance evaporated amidst bankruptcy hearings and corporate takeovers.

The deindustrialization of Hancock County underscores the ongoing nature of the industrial restructuring that brought new industries and industrial jobs to the county a century before. Workers struggled for decades to achieve a modest, dependable income and a decent life. During those decades, they continually adapted to new technologies, shifting markets, and changes within the working class. At the height of their influence locally, the rural-industrial workers of Hancock County also joined with like-minded Americans around the country to roll back the New Deal order and transform postwar America. The wrenching economic changes of the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, have left many working families to wonder what it was all about.

As I read, I was reminded of passages from the speech AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave on Friday at the United Nations:

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.” Never mind that such a thing is simply not going to happen—there is no substitute now for metallurgical coal and if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening. Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal — the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the “green economy” will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society — another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.

You can read the speech for yourself here and you can also see the initial reactions from a couple of the most outspoken anti-mountaintop removal activists in the comments section.

It’s certainly true that Rich Trumka didn’t mention mountaintop removal — and there’s no doubt we haven’t heard much from the Rich’s old friends at the United Mine Workers about the growing body of science that links living near mountaintop removal to serious health problems, to increases risks of cancer and birth defects among coalfield children. I’ve asked the question on Coal Tattoo before, “Exactly what sort of environmental protection does the UMWA support?” At the same time, I’m not sure that the way to build strong coalitions is to do what citizen groups did a few years back when the UMWA’s media spokesman, Phil Smith, took part in a roundtable aimed at trying to find common ground on heated and complicated coal industry issues.

And gosh, to hear the president of the AFL-CIO to speak so eloquently about what is without a doubt a much larger global crisis — climate change — was a truly remarkable moment. Just go back and read part of it:

Today, as we meet together, scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change — with catastrophic consequences for human civilization. We must have a stable climate to feed the planet, to ensure there is drinking water for our cities but not floodwaters at our doors. A stable climate is the foundation of our global civilization, of our global economy — the prerequisite for a profitable investment environment.

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now — I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

And what about economic transformation, about green jobs and a stronger economy? Rich Trumka said:

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer:

Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Taking on the threat of climate change means putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy–one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.

Reading the Trumka speech and the reactions to it also reminded me of the wise words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

Change is no stranger to the coal industry. Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800’s. Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And change is undeniably upon the coal industry again. The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals.

Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities. I share those concerns.

Remember that Sen. Byrd also told us that “the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.” Of course, that is exactly the oppose of what we heard last week from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, in a State of the State address that mentioned coal only to cheer-lead, as opposed to actually leading. And it’s exactly the opposite of what other political leaders are doing when they dodge questions about the mountaintop removal health studies.

Even for those political leaders who support mountaintop removal — or who are afraid not to support it — go back and read Lou Martin’s op-ed piece:

… Even if we cannot agree on mountaintop removal, change is still coming. A 2010 report by Downstream Strategies predicts that coal mining in Central Appalachia will decline by more than half over the next 25 years (from 234 million tons in 2008, down to 99 million tons in 2035) for reasons ranging from competition from natural gas to depletion of the most productive reserves.

There’s a crisis in the making … what are we going to do about it?