Coal Hurts Those It Pretends to Help

By Dan Radmacher

(This article appeared on June 19 in the Charleston Gazette)

AFTER THREE days of touring mountaintop removal mines, we were in the bus driving down Cannelton Hollow back toward Charleston. The bus was full of environmental activists, interested citizens, industry representatives and the Division of Environmental Protection officials who hosted the tour.

Ahead of us, a loaded coal truck lumbered, gears grinding and engine sputtering.

As I thought about what I had seen over those three days, I was suddenly able to put words to a vague feeling that had gnawed at me for the five years I've lived here:

The coal industry offends the hell out of me.

Before anybody storms The Charleston Gazette, let me explain more fully. I am offended in part on behalf of miners and thousands of others who make their living from coal.

I am offended by an industry that had to be forced by federal law to provide a workplace that is even remotely safe. Even now, the industry sabotages efforts to control coal dust. Coal dust causes black lung. In sufficient concentrations, it causes mine explosions.

Before the Mine Safety and Health Act passed in 1969, hundreds of miners lost their lives every year. The industry accepted that as a cost of business. Actually it was a savings. Safety measures cost money - more money than industry bean counters thought the lives of miners were worth. Since 1969, miners have died at one-fifth the rate they did before the mandated reforms and inspections.

This is an industry that had to be forced by federal law to limit ravages to the environment. Before the Clean Water Act passed, acid mine drainage killed creeks all over the state. Such drainage still causes problems. Before the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act passed, strip miners left scarred and pitted mountains in their wake, without even a nod toward reclamation.

The state is still trying to clean up many of these sites. Yet the industry has the gall to complain about being over-regulated.

This is an industry that used its undue influence on state politicians to get $80 million a year in "super tax credits" for supposedly creating jobs - while the number of miners drops ever lower. Industry associations defend huge companies that used fly-by-night contractors to escape hundreds of millions of dollars in Workers' Compensation debts and union pension obligations.

This is an industry that forces coal truck drivers who want to make a decent living to illegally overload their trucks, making mincemeat out of state roads and endangering other travelers.

This is an industry that hauls $100 million of coal a year through Cabin Creek, while poor children play in raw sewage.

Finally, this is an industry that rips the top off mountains and dumps the "spoil" in valleys, burying miles of streams and headwaters, then has the nerve to claim that the newly flattened "fish and wildlife habitat" is an improvement over mountains, forests and streams that used to provide genuine fish and wildlife habitat.

I know all the pro-coal arguments. Coal is a plentiful resource. It helps keep the nation from becoming too dependent on foreign oil. It provides thousands of jobs and spin-off jobs. It aids local economies.

But if coal is so economically beneficial to the state, why is West Virginia the second-poorest state in the nation, despite its wealth of natural resources? If coal helps local economies so much, why are the southern coalfields the most impoverished part of the state?

Would West Virginia be better off if millions of tons of coal didn't lie beneath her mountains? That's a tough, complex question. But I tend to agree with historian John Alexander Williams, who wrote:

"Persons who have studied the impact of coal mining on different societies from Silesia to northern Japan have usually concluded that coal has been a curse upon the land that yielded it. West Virginia is no exception. In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small proportion of the people whose lives it has touched."

Who profits from coal? Mostly out-of-state coal companies and their executives. Who pays the price? Miners who die slowly of black lung. The 125 men, women and children of Buffalo Creek who drowned when a coal refuse dam above their hollow failed, releasing a torrent of water. The children of Cabin Creek, who, despite the wealth carted practically from beneath their feet still have no sewer system. The citizens of communities like Blair, now run out of their homes by blasting, dust and flyrock from mountaintop removal jobs above them. Any Mountaineer pained by the site of beautiful ridges ripped out and leveled.

I attended all three days of last week's mine tour. Arch Coal hosted the first two days. The first day involved a heavy dose of propaganda from Dal-Tex manager Mark White. But the second day was a frank, open and complete look at an active job and ongoing reclamation work at Samples mountaintop removal mine on Cabin Creek.

I saw that the workers trying to reclaim this land take pride in what they’re doing. The management obviously feels that this method of mining is the only economical way to get at these coal seams, many of which have already been deep-mined. I don't know if that's true, or if there is a better, less destructive way. And I do know that the method is hardly economical if you consider the social and environmental costs the industry mostly passes on to the citizens of West Virginia.

I don't think all coal executives are villains. I definitely don't see coal miners and other industry workers as villains. But in the last five years, I have seen the damage that coal has wrought in this state -- dead streams that flow orange; valleys filled and mountains decapitated and turned into unnatural, grassy plateaus; disabled miners and the widows of miners lost in unnecessary accidents; crumbling roads and decimated communities.

It is offensive, deeply offensive.

Someday, maybe West Virginians will reclaim some of the state’s lost dignity and elect a governor and a Legislature who will not bow down before Big Coal. _