'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities
Now, even those states are struggling as domestic demand dwindles. U.S. coal production plummeted 9.4 percent between the first and second quarters of 2012.
By the end of the year, coal is expected to account for less than 40 percent of all U.S. electricity production, the lowest level since the government began collecting data in 1949. By the end of the decade, it may be closer to 30 percent.
Operators are adjusting to survive.
On a single day in September, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources closed eight mines in four states, announcing that by early next year, some 1,200 jobs nationwide will be gone.
‘‘That’s 1,200 people not going to the grocery store,’’ says Tracy Miller, a miner’s wife in Keokee, Va.
Not going to Wal-Mart. Buying less gas. Postponing home improvements. Forgoing little luxuries like a dinner out.
Most of the first 400 cut were lucky; all but about 130 got transfers. Driving to a new job several hours away is hard, but it’s better than no job at all. For those truly out of work, options are limited. Logging, maybe. More likely, something in the service sector.
‘‘But if there’s no coal mines,’’ Miller says, ‘‘there’s not going to be a Dollar Store, either.’’
Coal remains the economic pillar of many Appalachian communities, the foundation of a mono-economy that political leaders have for generations lacked either the will or the ability to diversify.
Without coal, families can’t put food on the table or pay for the roofs over their heads.
The specter of losing it creates fear, frustration and anger.
‘‘I've done a lot of praying, and my family’s done a lot of praying. We've literally been scared to death,’’ says Shana Lucas, whose husband Trent was among the lucky ones, transferred when the layoffs hit Wise, Va.
‘‘I don’t think people understand the lack of job opportunities here,’’ she says. ‘‘Coal is the only thing we have here besides fast-food restaurants.’’
A miner can make $30 an hour, plus overtime — as opposed to the $8 an hour in the service industry.
‘‘They have worked so, so hard, and they are losing everything they've worked for,’’ Lucas says. ‘‘It’s devastation to this place that we love and to the men that we look at as heroes.’’
Somebody must be to blame.
Obama is an easy target. He armed his opponents during a 2008 campaign interview that touched on global warming.
‘‘If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.’’
He now espouses an ‘‘all of the above’’ energy strategy that includes a role for coal. But after he took office, the EPA provided more weapons to his critics.
It rolled out tough new air pollution standards, some of which had begun under the previous, Republican administration. It vetoed a permit for a massive West Virginia mountaintop removal mine four years after it was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, triggering a federal court battle that’s still playing out.
And EPA cracked down on the permitting process for mountaintop mining, a highly efficient and highly destructive form of strip mining unique to Appalachia. The practice of flat-topping mountains, then filling valleys and covering streams with rubble has divided communities and led to multiple confrontations between coal miners and environmental activists.
‘‘I know we need the EPA to keep our laws,’’ says Allen Gibson, a disabled surface miner from Elkhorn City, Ky., who recently helped organize a United for Coal demonstration that stretched across several states. ‘‘But instead of telling the companies what to do to fix a problem, they shut the whole thing down.’’
The EPA, he says, just wants to collect fines.
‘‘But when they do that, the miners lose,’’ Gibson says. ‘‘I'm sick of seeing the little guy pay.’’
During the permitting dispute in 2010, companies crammed miners onto buses and packed public hearings, forging a formidable alliance of management and labor that drowned out the environmentalists.
‘‘They have completely turned the men on their heels,’’ says Nick Mullins, a 33-year-old former miner from Clintwood, Va., who blogs about coal country as The Thoughtful Coal Miner.
‘‘They’re paying them better, and they've managed to really win the hearts and minds,’’ he says. Younger miners ‘‘didn’t see how bad the coal companies were to the men before them. ... They don’t know their own history.
‘‘The industry has done this really, really good propaganda,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s really easy to buy into it, especially when you only hear one side of the story and you’re shutting out the other side.’’Continued...