Labor and enviros join up in W.Va. to fight mountaintop coal mining_jobs with ea

I speak for many of my colleagues in saying we yearn for the day when were not in the midst of a pitched battle to prevent the immediate destruction of dozens of mountains and streams and can begin working on legislation that we half-jokingly call the Central Appalachian Economic Diversification and Jobs Bonanza Act. We spoke many times with Byrds office about developing and introducing some such bill, and had he lived a little longer, one may actually have been introduced by now. But its pointless to work on an economic development and diversification bill that lacks the support of local workers and elected officials. Collaborating to promote worker retraining programs and federal and state incentives to bring new industries to Appalachia would be an excellent way for labor unions and environmental and community advocacy groups to work together to accomplish common goals.

Environmentalists, on the other hLabor and enviros join up in W.Va. to fight mountaintop coal mining_jobs with eaand, also have some embracing of the future to do. First, while most acknowledge that coal use wont go away overnight, we havent really taken to heart the ct that this means coal will have to be mined somewhere. Supporting responsible mining practices can be as important as opposing irresponsible ones, and it could go a long way toward building bridges with unions and other potential allies. There has thus r been little enthusiasm among environmental advocates to wade into those difficult and controversial waters, and Im as guilty as any for avoiding the issue, but perhaps the time has come for us to take a position on what responsible mining practices are, as well as irresponsible ones, and work together with unions to ensure that its the most worker-friendly and environmentally responsible mines that get permitted to meet the declining demand for coal.

On the other hand, environmental and community advocates have also been pretty loose with the cts at times. One particular example is a lot of counterproductive rhetoric about coal from mountaintop-removal mines being mostly shipped oversjobs with eastern healtheas. This rhetoric is presumably used in an effort to play on the populist xenophobia that has won many an election for unscrupulous politicians, but it is simply untrue — almost all of the coal shipped out of eastern ports is metallurgical coal used for steel-, which is mined almost entirely underground. Drumming up opposition to exports of metallurgical coal is counterproductive for environmental advocates — and anathema to unions and potential allies outside the region that depend on shipping revenues — because it undermines the most immediate opportunity to replace jobs in mountaintop-removal mining.

Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette has written a lot about the complex balancing act that Cecil Roberts must perform in order to represent all UMWA members (a small proportion of which work at mountaintop removal and other types of suce mines in Appalachia) while not entirely alienating his union from other progressive causes and constituencies that are natural political allies of the union (see here, here; and here). The problem is that stopping the destruction caused by mountaintop removal is among the top priorities of many progressive groups in Appalachia, whose feelings toward the UMWA now range from frustration to rage.

Voters in the Appalachian region oppose mountaintop-removal mining and are more likely to support a presidential candidate who similarly opposes the method.

This weeks march on Blair Mountain is a timely reminder of just how much organized labor, community advocates, and environmental organizations have in common. And the stark post-November realities that we are cing should provide a lot of incentive to not forget it again.

To take action to help protect Blair Mountain and other mountains and communities threatened by mountaintop-removal coal mining, visit

It would not be ir, however, to put all of the blame for the sour relationship onto UMWA leadership. While most local opponents of mountaintop-removal mining are not opposed to all coal mining, the attitudes and statements of some outspoken opponents of mountaintop removal have been distinctly anti-coal. Thats not a message that resonates well with rank-and-file members of the UMWA. Moreover, while there are a growing number of environmental and community groups promoting economic development around renewable energy and weatherization in the region, creating new jobs and new industries has never been the core strength of environmental groups.

If we are going to avoid disaster in this next election cycle, then we need to break out of our circular firing squad and do our part to change the narrative — and thus the mandate of whoever controls the reins of government after the next election — away from Deficit Attention and Hypocrisy Disorder and back toward creating jobs and protecting the health and safety of workers and the environment in which they live.

This highlights the absurdity of blaming the EPA policies on mine permitting, or environmental groups working to end mountaintop removal, for recent declines in coal production. In ct, the capacity of the U.S. fleet of active coal mines has never been higher, while the proportion of that capacity that is actually being utilized has never been lower. Ive written elsewhere about how this ct undercuts every argument made by coal industry supporters about how the EPA is threatening jobs, electricity supply, and national security. But the point here is that the efforts of unions to eliminate permitting bottlenecks accomplishes nothing to increase production or mining jobs.

Of course, the attitude of some union miners toward environmental groups and community activists is equally venomous, but that does not appear to be representative of the feelings of most UMWA members (many of whom are retired). For instance, a 2008 poll of likely voters in the specific region where mountaintop removal occurs showed that opposition to mountaintop-removal mining was even greater among union households than it was among the general population of the region. In ct, its well worth taking a look at the key findings of that poll, which was commissioned by my organization in advance of the 2008 elections (a portion of the results, summarized by the polling firm Gerstein and Agne, is available here [PDF]). According to the firm that conducted the polling, the key results included:

In short, it seems that much of the reason for the past friction between UMWA and environmental groups stems from lse perceptions and poor communication rather than from fundamentally divergent interests. The following are my humble suggestions for a road map to repair and expand the natural alliance between environmental and labor organizations in Appalachia.

Renewable energy is seen as the long-term key to energy security, economic growth, and the quality of life of local communities.

In ct, the march to Blair Mountain is only one of several recent examples where the interests of labor and environmental advocates are closely aligned. For instance, last weeks buyout of Massey Energy was another recent event celebrated by environmentalists, community groups, and organized labor alike. Massey was not only reckless, negligent, and probably criminal in last years disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, but the company was by r the largest operator of mountaintop-removal coal mines in Appalachia and a notorious scofflaw in regard to environmental laws like the Clean Water Act. Massey had also long been known for its union-busting practices.

While there are certainly environmental, health, and safety problems at underground mines and processing cilities that produce metallurgical coal, the high price that met coal commands compared to steam coal (i.e., coal used to produce electricity) can support r more environmentally responsible mining and waste disposal practices. In addition, the sky-rocketing price of metallurgical coal can support bigger payrolls, safer mines, higher wages, and better benefits for miners. Ultimately, it may very well help the effort to unionize mines, which creates even more jobs and better safety practices.

Environmentalists got a similar wake-up call when the new Republican majority in the House sought to eviscerate EPAs ability to enforce the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts through amendments to the House Budget bill last February. Again, this was all done under the lse banner of reducing the deficit.

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment. Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are significant investments to prepare. …

A third — and by r the most important — ctor linking the struggles of these groups is an almost existential crisis they are cing as a result of Americas recent, acute attack of what I like to call Deficit Attention and Hypocrisy Disorder (hat tip). The takeover of many state legislatures and governors offices by anti-government and anti-union ideologues last November has resulted in bills to strip collective bargaining rights of public employees in states from Ohio and Wisconsin to Florida and Tennessee — all of which, of course, is taking place under the lse pretense of reducing the deficit.

The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop-removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Given that declining demand is the bottleneck for Appalachian coal production, as evidenced by the ct that existing mines are operating at historically low capacity levels, there is really nothing that the EPA or environmental groups are doing in regard to mining rules, or even could do, that would actually decrease coal production in the short term. For instance, consider the chart below, which summarizes information from the Federal Reserve about the productive capacity of already permitted and active coal mines and the level at which that capacity is being utilized.

The perception created by the coal industry that the EPA is destroying mining jobs and causing an economic crisis in Appalachia is entrenched firmly enough in the public discourse to withstand a mountain on contrary evidence. However, the unions should know better than to believe this kind of rhetoric from coal companies and trade associations that have used the same sky-is-lling estimates of job losses to oppose every effort by the unions to strengthen workplace safety laws and strengthen the enforcement of those already on the books. The UMWA knows well that this rhetoric is lse and that stronger safety laws actually create more jobs. They should also know that the same principle applies to health and environmental laws — and theres plenty of evidence to show that strengthening them is already creating new mining jobs and helping to save existing ones.

Why cant we all just get along?

Whether or not one believes that stronger regulations on CO2 emissions and other coal-related pollutants are inevitable, there is one reality brought up by Byrd that residents of Appalachian coal-mining states cannot afford to ignore. Americas demand for Appalachian coal is going nowhere but down, not because of the EPA or environmentalists, but because the high cost of accessing dwindling reserves make it uncompetitive with alternative sources of energy (see graph below for historic and projected future trends).

Something extraordinary is happening this week in southern West Virginia. For the first time in years, the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA), the largest union representing coal miners, has found common cause with environmental and community advocates who are seeking to end mountaintop-removal coal mining.

As mentioned previously, wed also be wise to acknowledge the ct that production of metallurgical coal in Appalachia is likely to increase in the next few years, even as overall production continues its precipitous decline. Is it really impossible to embrace that as a good thing, even as we work to improve the waste disposal practices of coal processing plants and reduce the damage caused by underground longwall mines?

Heres a great (and brief) update on the march from the team at iLoveMountains.org that is well worth a watch:

That said, there is increasing evidence that moves by the EPA to rein in the permitting of the most destructive new mountaintop-removal mines are creating jobs, not destroying them. It turns out that mining jobs have been a real bright spot in the national and regional employment picture since the start of the Great Recession. As shown in the graph below, the number of mining jobs in Appalachia has increased by 8.5 percent over the same time period that the overall U.S. economy shed more than 5 percent of its workforce. In ct, the number of mining jobs has increased substantially since the EPA started its enhanced review of mine permits and since their new guidance on suce mine permitting went into effect in April of last year.

There is overwhelming support for Clean Water Protection Act — even after opponents say it will mean an end to mountaintop-removal mining in their state.

2. Embrace the future

3. Communicate regularly and collaborate when possible

1. Get the cts

Community organizers, environmental groups, and the UMWA once worked shoulder to shoulder to pass regulations on strip mining. Those efforts culminated in the passage of the Suce Mining Control and Rection Act in 1977. Unfortunately, a lot of resentment has developed between these groups over the past 15 years, mostly stemming from divergent positions on the environmentally devastating and job-destroying practice of mountaintop removal. While UMWA does not have an official position on mountaintop removal, a number of public statements by UMWA President Cecil Roberts have been explicitly supportive of the practice.

Shortly before he died, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) wrote a powerful op-ed urging the coal industry in his state to embrace the future. As the late senator wrote:

But the most important thing, especially as we get into the next election cycle, is to ensure that the UMWA and environmental groups dont unnecessarily work at cross-purposes and thus inadvertently play into the hands of the anti-government and anti-union radicals that are working to deepen our nations Deficit Attention and Hypocrisy Disorder.

Both groups want to protect this historic mountain from the efforts of coal companies to obliterate parts of the battlefield in order to conduct mountaintop-removal coal mining operations.

Labor and enviros join up in W.Va. to fight mountaintop coal mining_jobs with ea,Some UMWA miners have joined hundreds of environmental and Appalachian community advocates who are marching to Blair Mountain on the 90th anniversary of one of the greatest labor battles in American history.

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