King Coal

Opinion of a Native Son

by Charles Peters

(From the June, 1998 issue of The Washington Monthly magazine, "Tilting at Windmills" column. Forwarded through WISe by Jim Sconyers)

Growing up in West Virginia was a continuing lesson in the evils of the coal companies. Mostly controlled by out-of-staters, they avoided paying anything like their fair share of taxes and their contempt for workers and the environment was seldom concealed. Have they changed? Not a bit.

Recently in West Virginia they've been trying to shift the burden of making up a $2.2 billion deficit in the state's workers compensation fund from high-risk employers like themselves to low-risk companies and to the taxpayer. And you may have seen the recent "Nightline" episode on ABC that showed how mountain-top removal is decapitating the state's once-beautiful terrain. Seventy-five of these hideous projects are mining coal now and would you believe that the Republican governor, Cecil Underwood, a former coal company executive who received $518,000 in campaign and inauguration contributions from his mining industry pals, is now trying to expand mountaintop removal!

And if you thought federal laws were protecting miners from black ling disease, you ought to read a series in the Louisville Courier-Journal that says as many as 3,600 working miners have black lung. The reason is that the coal companies lie when they report the results of tests of air quality in their mines. Two dozen former mine owners actually admitted to the Courier-Journal that they had falsified tests.

The paper exploded another myth about black lung: that strip miners don't get it. In fact, people who work 20 years or more in strip mining have a 61 percent chance of getting black lung. _