“Rally for Coal”: which way for West Virginia?

The Environmental Protection Agency has vetoed the permit for the Logan County, W. Va., Spruce Number One mine, a symbol of the debate over mountain top removal mining that has been embroiled in litigation since 1998.

In the wake of the defeat of significant carbon reduction regulations by Republican filibusters of the energy bill last session, the Environmental Protection Agency has become more aggressive in fighting climate change dangers posed by, among other culprits, carbon polluting coal. The EPA finally shrugged off intense pressure coming from both the oil and coal industry to continue doing nothing, and took a stand.

Now you can hear the coal companies holler across the state of West Virginia – and not just them, but their friends in the legislature, state government and communities where the economy – and public services – are heavily dependent on revenues from the coal industry. Coal industry employment has shrunk from over 120,000 direct workers in 1960, to just 20,000 today, out of a workforce of 820,000 people. Nonetheless, while coal employs less than a half a percent of the workforce, it contributes nearly 15 percent of state revenues, mostly through the legacy “severance” tax. This no doubt helps explain the mass turnout of state officeholders, plus the Congressional delegation, to the “Rally for Coal” held in the capital, Charleston, Thursday, Jan. 20, to protest the EPA sanction against mountaintop removal.

About 400 defenders of coal cheered the importance of coal in energy policy, some claiming it was “God’s will” that coal is both mined and burned. Others denying climate change, or just pointing out the absence of alternative jobs, or political hacks whose paychecks are directly or indirectly signed by the coal companies joined the crowd.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin chaired the rally inside the state capitol building. He called upon the Rev. Mitchell Bias, from the Delbarton Regional Church of God, to deliver God’s Word on the subject. “Coal is your will. You placed it here on earth. It is part of your master plan,” Bias said. He prayed to God that 2011 “will be safe and secure for mining and the most prosperous year for mining.” Some of the Reverend’s people attending the rally wore black “Friends of Coal” t-shirts reading, “Pro-Christ, Pro-Life, Pro-American, Pro-Guns, Pro-Coal … Republican.”

Back on earth, Marie Gunnoe, an organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said, “Mountaintop removal is no longer a jobs issue. It is a health issue. They are killing us by destroying our mountains and destroying our water.  Six generations of my family have lived there. We have every right to stay there. Don’t we have the right to protect our water?”

There were a couple of hundred opponents of mountaintop mining as well, including both coal miners and longtime residents from coal districts of West Virginia. The theme of the opponents was, “The mountains in West Virginia are now worth a lot more standing than they are being torn down.” So agreed state delegate John Doyle, a delegate from Jefferson county (in the panhandle, not in coal country), who added, “Tourism and knowledge based industries must be our future.” The coal lobby is not pushing in that direction, clearly.

The United Mine Workers in W.Va. has taken an agnostic position, not challenging climate change science or the need for “clean coal,” but clearly concerned about any threat to jobs. The Spruce Mine, vetoed by the EPA, would have been a $250 million dollar investment promising 250 jobs.

Of course, these particular jobs would be non-union. Only a miniscule percent of mountaintop removal mining jobs are unionized (less than 5 percent).

Meanwhile, West Virginia ranks 49th in personal income. For all the wealth that mining coal creates, it has not had much spillover in terms of overall economic development.

Moderate political forces at the rally, fearful of overly offending coal, but still not entirely numb about the science and dangers of carbon pollution and environmental degradation from mountaintop removal mining, called for more focus on “clean coal.” In the past this has turned out to be just a code word for “coal.” The EPA decision compels the coal industry, and their supporters to put some skin in the game when they say “clean.”

Rocked by 9 percent unemployment and increasing pressure to adjust its economic development philosophy, West Virginia must begin looking to the future, not the past, for answers.

Image: Emily Hoyer // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.