The Coal River area of West Virginia continues to be the focus of the most blatant conflict between environmentalists and the mining industry. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in West Virginia has been owned, more or less, by the coal industry for decades.

Now it’s being called the “Department of Incompetence” for its complete disregard for the environment in favor of the coal companies. Some say the same thing about the entire state government – a strange fact considering that the coal industry today employs less than 20,000 people in West Virginia, the second poorest state in the nation. The only other downward economic path is ‘goin to Mississippi’.

So powerful are the coal companies, and their chosen Senator – the not quite passed on Robert Byrd – that federal government statistics agencies have even been banned from collecting data on the social and environmental impact of coal mining – especially ‘mountaintop removal’ mining, the current point of contention.

The state DEP has now certified numerous blasting operations, as part of its unfettered support for mountaintop removal mining and the daily detonation of 3.5 million pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives in historic mountain communities. Scores of fed-up coal miners and coalfield residents also rallied at the agency’s office recently and presented an embarrassingly long list of the agency’s failure to hold up its mandate to protect and restore the environment, ensure water quality, and enforce strip mining, and demanded the resignation of West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman.

According to the coalfield residents, the DEP has: • failed to hold mining operators accountable for violations; • refused to thoroughly address the potential dangers of coal slurry injection and set permit limits for abandoned mine site discharge; • and misled residents on regulatory actions. It’s hard to find a more blatant case of industry government corruption and collusion on environmental issues. Nonetheless the United Mine Workers has sided with coal operators on the mountaintop removal question: On these issues, the union known for its fierce opposition to coal operators has allied itself with the industry, including longtime nemesis Arch Coal Inc. of St. Louis, the nation’s second-largest coal producer. The position disappointed environmental activists. ‘Don’t they understand that this could mean more jobs?’ asked Laura Forman, spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. ‘If they can’t use mountaintop removal to strip it,’ she contends, ‘they’ll mine it underground,’ a much more labor-intensive method. Cecil Roberts, UMW President, has said that idea ‘is ridiculous.’ ‘If somebody could tell me how to mine this much coal with picks and shovels, I’d be glad to hear it,’ he said. ‘But it can’t be done.’ His first duty as a labor leader is to represent his members, he said. ‘I have an obligation to side with my members, first, and second, some of these environmentalists are living in a fantasy world,’ Roberts said. ‘I have to live in the real world.’

Well, in the ‘real world’ where people have to live on the land and drink water that flows upon it, this type of mining has to go. But – and here is a lesson that many who support progressive, environmentally friendly laws don’t seem to get – workers who lose their jobs to progress must be compensated with full and complete retraining and transition costs. You can’t have environmental progress at the price of workers becoming poorer. That too is ‘the real world’.


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.