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Fiscal collapse of coal towns all but certain, new research shows

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

New research shows that communities in coal country are at an increased risk of fiscal collapse. The data is the latest blow to President Donald Trump’s ongoing but faltering efforts to rescue the industry and its workers.

Local governments dependent on coal are failing to account for the financial implications of the industry’s demise, according to new findings from Columbia University and the Brookings Institution. That trend is likely to worsen should the federal government take action to curb carbon emissions, which would be likely if a Democrat were to triumph in 2020.

Released Monday, the new report looks at 26 counties in 10 states, all in Appalachia or the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. Those areas are all classified as “coal-mining dependent,” meaning that the industry is a major employer there, with some 53,000 workers noted by the study.

Coal also serves as a major contributor to local governments in those places. Despite that dependency, however, the report finds that those areas, already hard-hit by coal’s decline, are not prepared for the implications of potential climate policies.

“If the United States undertakes actions to address the risks of climate change, the use of coal in the power sector will decline rapidly,” the report observes, while going on to note that coal-dependent governments “have yet to grapple with the implications of climate policies for their financial conditions.”

With the backdrop of the plummeting coal industry, the study broadly examines the fiscal risk posed to communities heavily reliant on that sector. Between 2007 and 2017, coal production fell by a third, a decline that is set to continue even under current policies with a pro-coal federal government. But even a “moderately stringent climate policy,” the researchers note, could lead the industry to plummet by around 75% into the 2020s.

That would likely be disastrous for unprepared communities. School districts and other systems in these areas rely on coal-dependent revenue and local economies are heavily intertwined with the industry. Historically, the study argues, “the rapid decline of a dominant industry” has led to the fiscal collapse of local governments, threatening their long-term well-being.

And despite the risk that coal’s decline poses to reliant communities, government filings fail to capture this. “[M]unicipalities are at best uneven and at worst misleading (by omission) in their characterizations of climate-related risks,” the report notes.

Those findings come at a grim time for the industry. Coal has been declining for years, a trend due largely to market factors. Renewables and cheaper fossil fuels, like natural gas, have dethroned coal in recent decades. But Trump has made rescuing the industry a key mission of his presidency, going so far as to float bailing out coal, along with the also-struggling nuclear power sector.

Trump’s efforts to save coal have been primarily concentrated in regulatory rollbacks and rule-weakening. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP), which used the federal government to target the emissions produced by coal-fired power plants.

By contrast, the ACE rule largely turns that authority over to the states, in a move experts have argued would not save the coal industry but would likely drive up emissions.

New data similarly indicates that the administration’s efforts aren’t shifting coal’s trajectory, even short-term. S&P Global reported Monday that despite the ACE rule, several coal plant operators are still going ahead with scheduled retirements.

Those operators argue that even despite the rule change, the “dynamics” within the industry will not shift, such as the rising popularity of renewables and natural gas. Notably, more coal plants shuttered during Trump’s first two years in office than during the entire first term of the Obama administration.

Even as coal collapses, however, experts argue that more can be done to help impacted communities. Proposals like the Green New Deal, a blueprint for rapidly decarbonizing the economy, include calls for a “just transition” — a clause that would ensure protections for coal miners and other impacted fossil fuel workers. Many Democratic 2020 contenders have endorsed the Green New Deal along with calling for a just transition for frontline communities hit hard by efforts towards net-zero emissions.

But some unions have aligned against the Green New Deal, expressing concern over the impact of decarbonization on those workers, even as other unions — including Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — have backed the proposal.

As Monday’s study emphasizes, advance planning is needed as coal communities head towards collapse; this could include potentially a carbon pricing system that would see funds redistributed to those impacted.

“A new source of government revenue may be required to push a serious economic development program across the finish line,” the report says, underscoring that a “logical source of these funds would be a federal carbon price.”

Even that may be a hard sell in many communities. Trump has expressed no interest in a carbon tax and local efforts have struggled. Washington state failed last November to enshrine a carbon pricing effort after a record-breaking financial opposition effort from out-of-state oil companies. And last month, Oregon Republicans left the state in order to kill a similar effort.

Still, the coal industry is keeping close ties to the administration. Bob Murray, CEO of coal mining corporation Murray Energy, is hosting a private fundraising event for Trump’s re-election campaign later this month, according to Documented. The fundraiser will be held in West Virginia, one of the most coal-reliant communities.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on July 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress. Originally from Texas, Ev has reported from many parts of the country and previously covered world issues for Muftah Magazine, with an emphasis on South Asia and Eastern Europe. Reach them at: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

The Media Uses Coal Miners To Attack the Green New Deal—Then Ignores Their Pension Fight

Friday, July 12th, 2019

To stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, at least 80 percent of coal reserves must stay in the ground, according to a conservative estimate in the journal Nature. This means that coal miners would see their already declining industry all but disappear. The Green New Deal, the resolution put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for an economy-wide mobilization to address the climate crisis, call for a “just transition” that guarantees good new jobs for coal miners. Some insist that the “just transition” start now, which is why they are supporting the American Miners Act.

Introduced in the Senate on January 3, the Act protects the pensions of more than 100,000 coal miners whose retirement fund was depleted by the 2008 crash. It also rescues the healthcare benefits of miners whose companies went bankrupt last year.

But you wouldn’t know about this bill, or its sister legislation in the House, from reading the New York Times, the Washington Post or Politico, three influential outlets within the Beltway. None have reported on—or mentioned—the legislation since it was introduced in early January, even though it has the support of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and high-profile cosponsors like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet these outlets have given considerable space to coal miners and unions to advance other narratives. In a four month period this spring and summer (February 25 to June 25), the New York TimesWashington Post and Politico have published 34 articles and opinion pieces that touch on coal miners or their unions. Collectively, they paint coal miners primarily as a source of votes, and assume that the sole political motivation of that bloc is opposing environmental policies that would close mines.

Seven stories discuss the decline of the coal industry or the new mergers, without mentioning the American Miners Act. Seven describe Democrats’ attempts to reach out to coal miners. One mentions rising suicide rates among coal miners in the Midwest. One includes brief mention of a coal miners’ strike more than a century ago. Only one piece highlights coal miners’ present-day concerns about workplace conditions: an article about silica dust causing a resurgence of black lung, that was produced by Reuters and reprinted by the New York Times. And only one discusses how the Gre­en New Deal could support coal miners.

By far the most frequent reference, in 16 stories, was to depict coal workers as a conservative constituency. These 16 stories either pit coal miners’ livelihoods against robust climate action, reference miners’ support for regressive policies like environmental deregulation, or discuss miners who back President Trump. When coal miners speak against progressive policies, particularly environmental ones, they’re more likely to be given a platform. When they issue demands that affect their everyday survival, they’re on their own.

Politico and the Washington Post gave considerable space to the opposition of coal miners and unions to the Green New Deal, with three articles in this period highlighting the topic. By contrast, only one article, a 855-word opinion piece in the Washington Post, made the case for why coal miners should support the Green New Deal.

Overlooked blue-green alliances

These Green New Deal articles are worth examining, because they establish a narrative that there is an insurmountable divide between elite climate activists and workers just trying to get by. On March 12, the Washington Post ran the headline, “AFL-CIO criticizes Green New Deal, calling it ‘not achievable or realistic.’” The piece centered on a letter of opposition to the Green New Deal co-drafted by Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on behalf of the AFL-CIO’s energy committee.

Yet, on May 8, when Roberts rallied at Capitol Hill to call attention to the existential threat posed to retired coal miners’ livelihoods, the Washington Post was mum. Alongside the Alliance of Retired Americans, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and multiple members of Congress, Roberts made an impassioned case for the American Miners Act, the aforementioned legislation that would transfer money to the UMWA pension fund, a boon to workers whose benefits were threatened by the Great Recession. “We didn’t get any of the money you sent to Wall Street. You bailed them out,” Roberts shouted from a podium. “What about the people who work for a living in America? What about the people who’ve given their health to America?”

The press conference would have also offered an opportunity to report on alliance-building between coal miners and Green New Deal proponents. And in fact, Sara Nelson, president of AFA and vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, spoke at the press conference. “Flight attendants are here, with our miners, to make sure that miners’ healthcare and pensions are preserved,” she said. “They earned them.”

In a May interview with In These Times, Nelson emphasized the importance of rallying behind the bill. “We need to push to adopt legislation that keeps America’s promise to coal miners of pensions and healthcare,” she said, “as well as addresses black lung— that’s the bare minimum to show good faith that this process of taking on climate change will focus on making coal miners’ lives better, not worse.”

As labor and climate activists grapple with difficult questions about how to transition away from a fossil fuel economy without leaving workers behind, major media outlets remain stuck in a reductive “elite vs. blue-collar” divide. In These Times contributor Michelle Chen noted that this false dichotomy appears throughout a June 1 Politico article, “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California.” The article quotes Jack Pitney, described as “a veteran California political analyst and political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.”

He says there’s a “cautionary tale” for Democrats, who should remember that “West Virginia, until 2000, was considered solidly blue.” Republican strategist Karl Rove, working for candidate George W. Bush, pushed the fact “that the Democratic nominee was Al Gore, author of ‘Earth in the Balance,’’’ a fact that didn’t sit well with coal miners, Pitney recalls.

The piece cites unnamed coal miners as a warning to Democrats: If you campaign on the Green New Deal, you will lose elections. But reality is not so simple. While it is true that labor leaders in the building trades and extractive industries have expressed criticism or outright opposition to the Green New Deal, they don’t represent all of labor, nor all of their own rank-and-file membership. As Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner, told me at the People’s Climate March in 2014, “I worked underground for 41 years and I have black lung disease. I’m actually having a hard time breathing just to get to this stage. I am marching today because I want to build a bright future for my family, for Appalachia, and for this world. I have a vision where my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren can have good jobs that support our families without doing damage to our water, air, land and climate.”

And in fact, a survey by the progressive think tank Data for Progress in June found that “union membership is one of the factors most highly correlated with support for Green New Deal policies, as well as the Green New Deal framework as a whole.”

Some unions, locals and labor federations have come out in support of the Green New Deal, including the Service Employees International Union, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. And labor and climate groups worked together to pass landmark climate legislation through the New York legislature in June, thanks in part to the backing of the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. Environmental and workers’ groups have long tried to build cross-movement trust and solidarity, years before the Green New Deal was introduced.

The Black Mesa Water Coalition, for example, has long organized in Arizona to build support within coal mining communities for a just transition from coal. And Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organizes coal mining communities, including coal miners with black lung, to push for a transition away from fossil fuel extraction, rooted in opposition to climate change and the devastating health effects of coal mining. The organization has been talking about the need for a just transition for at least a decade, meaning that coal mining communities deserve partial credit for advancing this concept. In the former coal camps of Lynch and Benham, the organization is working to help residents envision and fight for a just transition to renewable energy, from protesting mountaintop removal to retrofitting homes.

The climate stakes

But perhaps the most glaring omission in Politico’s June 1 article is its failure to reckon with the stakes. Whether to support or not support a Green New Deal is not a question of political strategy to win voters or union support, devoid of context. The UN’s IPCC report, released in October, estimated that we have 12 years to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius and save hundreds of millions of people from devastating environmental destruction, poverty and death. This is a crisis that hurts poor and working-class people most, particularly those in the Global South, who are already seeing their societies uprooted by intensifying storms, draughts, and sea-level rise. Miners, who are on the front lines of hazardous fossil-fuel extraction, are not spared.

To be sure, a May 7 article in the Washington Post does emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis before noting the concern that it would “put coal miners out of work.” And it is worth noting the one Washington Post op-ed, published April 19, that defends the Green New Deal against critics like Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.), who dared Ocasio-Cortez to come his district.

“The Green New Deal specifically addresses the need to help people in communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels,” the article notes. “It calls for “directing investments [to] deindustrialized communities, that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.”

Yet the 855-word opinion piece may do little to counterbalance the narrative of conservative, anti-environmental coal miners reinforced across many stories. This lopsided focus contributes to the impression that the gulf between coal miners and climate justice campaigners is impossible to bridge.

“Mine workers are not the enemy here, and I think the press does play them out to be,” says Uehlein. “But they’re not. They’re potential allies if we can wrap our heads around real full-spectrum ‘just transition’ policies and fight for them.”

Accomplishing this transformation will require nuance and respect for the lives of coal miners who are hurting from dried-up pension funds, something influential media outlets could use more of.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert and Daniel Fernandez contributed research to this report.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

Trump’s EPA announces new plan to save the coal industry. Experts say it won’t.

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Wednesday one of President Donald Trump’s biggest efforts yet to rescue coal, even as projections show the industry in a downward spiral largely due to market forces rather than policy.

The agency unveiled the long-awaited Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, designed to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP), which aimed to curb climate change by lowering power plant carbon dioxide emissions. The Trump administration has repeatedly argued the CPP was a federal overreach, one the ACE rule seeks to correct.

The CPP sought to reduce the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions 32% by 2030, using 2005 levels as a baseline, largely by shifting to natural gas and renewable energy in a blow to coal. By contrast, Trump’s new ACE rule moves power to the states, giving those governments broad authority over coal emissions on a plant-by-plant basis.

“ACE will continue our nation’s environmental progress and it will do so legally and with proper respect for the states,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said during a press conference Wednesday while touting the ACE rule’s boon to coal.

The new rule, Wheeler said, will “ensure coal plants will be part of our clean future.”

Opponents of the new plan took aim at such comments. “Instead of writing an invitation to clean energy producers, President Trump has written a love letter to King Coal,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in a statement. “This new rule is nothing more than corporate welfare for the coal industry.”

The ACE rule’s introduction marks a major policy move for the Trump administration, which has actively sought to gut the CPP. In October 2017, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the agency’s intent to repeal and replace the Obama-era plan. The CPP itself had been in limbo for several years after the Supreme Court halted its enforcement in 2016 while lower court lawsuits against it proceeded in an unprecedented legal move.

Experts have largely seen the ACE rule as a wide-scale effort by Trump to save coal; the president has repeatedly pushed to rescue the industry and campaigned on restoring it to its former prominence. But by virtually any measure, coal is dramatically on the decline, and few experts believe that the ACE rule will change that.

More coal plants shuttered during Trump’s first two years in office than during former President Barack Obama’s entire first term. While increased environmental requirements have played a role in coal’s decline, far more prevalent is the rise of cheaper — and often cleaner — alternatives, like renewable energy and natural gas. Overall improvements in batteries and efficiency have also been a factor.

A study released in March meanwhile found that it would be cheaper to replace most U.S. coal plants with renewable alternatives than to keep them open.

And that trajectory is only likely to continue, with national coal production set to hit a four-decade low this year and again in 2020, even as wind power emerges as an economic powerhouse.

Rather than saving the coal industry, environmental advocates and climate scientists agree that the larger threat is to efforts reigning in harmful pollution emissions: experts worry the ACE rule will hinder Obama-era climate targets.

“How we choose to power our nation will determine how serious we are about confronting climate change,” said Shannon Heyck-Williams, director of climate and energy policy at the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. Heyck-Williams said the plan “does nothing to live up to these responsibilities.”

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. electricity sector needs to cut its emissions 74% by 2030 in order to avoid crossing the 2 degrees Celsius global warming threshold that the Paris climate agreement seeks to prevent. The ACE rule, experts said Wednesday, would fall far short of paving the way for such a reduction.

Independent analysis published in April found that the Trump plan would in fact increase emissions in 18 states compared to no plan at all.

EPA officials, however, insisted that emissions will still go down under the ACE rule. While the new rule will reduce emissions more than no regulation at all would, the EPA projects it will ultimately offer a reduction of 11 million tons by 2030. The agency had initially argued the ACE rule would see a drop of 13 to 30 million tons and did not explain the shift on Wednesday.

Officials also avoided any mention of the number of lives at risk from increased pollution that is likely to result from keeping coal plants open.

A leading emphasis of the CPP was the number of lives to be saved — the EPA estimated 2,700 to nearly 7,000 premature deaths would be prevented by 2030, due largely to lower pollution levels. Experts worry that the ACE rule could cause up to 1,400 more premature deaths by that time, a number obtained through a regulatory impact analysis using EPA’s own methodology.

But there was no acknowledgement of those numbers on Wednesday. Instead cost was emphasized: the administration says the new rule will save $120 million to $730 million over the next decade, a cost-benefit analysis critics argue has been stacked in favor of ACE.

“With this rule, the EPA is dodging its responsibility,” Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University law school, said in a statement. “The agency is required to control greenhouse gas pollution with the ‘best system of emission reduction,’ but this approach is nowhere close, making the rule legally vulnerable.

“While Americans face mounting threats from climate change, the Trump administration is undermining environmental safeguards and manipulating its math to conceal the damage it is causing.”

The new rule is likely to face lengthy battles in court, with groups like the Center for Biological Diversity expressing optimism that “this attack on our lungs” would not survive a wave of lawsuits. Congressional Democrats similarly indicated that they would seek to fight the new policy.

This article was originally published at Think Progress on June 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress. Originally from Texas, Ev has reported from many parts of the country and previously covered world issues for Muftah Magazine, with an emphasis on South Asia and Eastern Europe. Reach them at: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

Future of workers uncertain as third-biggest US coal company declares bankruptcy

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

Coal’s decline is hitting workers first and worst. The third-largest coal company in the United States has declared bankruptcy, leaving the future of its more than 1,000 workers uncertain. The announcement is also the latest indicator that the faltering coal industry is spinning further into decline despite the efforts of President Donald Trump to save it.

Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on Friday, a move that has been expected since at least the spring. The company has pointed to a weak market as a leading reason for its struggles, in addition to sluggish success in expanding exports. Officials said the company’s mines will continue to operate throughout the bankruptcy process; Cloud Peak operates two mines in Wyoming and one in Montana.

“While we undertake this process, Cloud Peak Energy remains a reliable source of high-quality coal for customers,” Cloud Peak President and CEO Colin Marshall said in a statement.

The company’s workers lack union protections. But even coal miners backed by unions are at risk — a ruling earlier this year allowed a coal company to abandon union contracts. And broader threats to federal funding for miner benefits are jeopardizing pensions for tens of thousands of workers.

Cloud Peak’s financial troubles reflect the broader realities of coal, which is being displaced by cheaper energy sources, including natural gas and renewables. Since 2015, major coal companies Alpha Natural Resources, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Mission Coal, and Westmoreland Coal have all declared bankruptcy amid falling profits and increasing concerns over long-term viability.

While that trend has continued through several presidential administrations, more coal plants closed during Trump’s first two years in office than during the entire first term of the Obama administration.

In total, at least 50 U.S. coal plants have shuttered under Trump as of this month, according to a Sierra Club report released last week. The uptick reflects market realities but it also comes despite the White House’s best efforts to revive coal.

Trump has strongly supported the coal industry since becoming president, going so far as to advocate for a controversial bailout of the struggling sector. While that plan has fallen by the wayside amid pushback, the administration’s larger backing has not. Documents obtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that the Interior Department has even altered federal endangered species protections in order to help the coal industry.

Meanwhile, workers on the ground are being severely impacted. In February, a judge ruled that bankrupt coal company Westmoreland could legally abandon its union contract obligations with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). That decision has compromised the health care benefits and pensions once promised to hundreds of current and retired miners.

At the time of the ruling, a representative for UMWA told ThinkProgress that many of those impacted are sick and unable to work after years spent in coal mines, leaving them in need of health care.

Westmoreland’s workers are unionized, but that isn’t the case for Cloud Peak. Bill Corcoran, regional campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal project, said Monday that the Wyoming company’s approximately 1,200 workers lack union protections and that their future is uncertain following the bankruptcy news. As Cloud Peak has edged towards bankruptcy, Corcoran told ThinkProgress, the company’s workers have already endured the brunt of the fallout.

“[Cloud Peak] has typically slashed or eliminated health care benefits for their workers,” he said, pointing to a larger trend of coal companies cutting worker benefits while bolstering the bonuses given to executives in order to incentivize them to stay.

The impact of coal company closures on their workers has long been a concern for unions and coal communities, but the issue has gained heightened prominence recently. As climate change becomes a leading issue for the U.S. public, lawmakers have faced a conundrum over how to protect those most impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels — namely, workers.

Under the Green New Deal resolution proposed in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), coal miners and other impacted workers would see a “just transition,” one that would theoretically protect their livelihoods.

It has been unclear exactly what such a shift would look like, but unions and labor rights organizations have said a plan like this will be crucial to secure their support. Some unions have been skeptical of the Green New Deal precisely because they have not yet seen legislation that would guarantee the protections of current fossil fuel workers.

Meanwhile, outside of union protections nearly 100,000 coal miners are at risk of losing their pensions by 2022 or sooner as coal companies continue to edge towards bankruptcy. The average benefit provided by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is only around $600 a month, but current and retired miners say that amount is critical to their well-being. The PBGC is heading towards insolvency, with bipartisan efforts in the Senate to rescue the fund currently stalled.

Corcoran emphasized that it is unclear what might happen to Cloud Peak’s current workers and that it is hard to say how the company might proceed. But he noted that the current downward trajectory of coal is at odds with worker security.

Efforts by Trump and lawmakers supportive of the coal industry are also failing to address that long-term problem, Corcoran said, noting that they have steered away from proposals to retrain workers in the renewables sector, for example.

“The real question,” he said, “is how are we helping workers transition?”

 

This article was originally published at Think Progress on May 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress. Originally from Texas, Ev has reported from many parts of the country and previously covered world issues for Muftah Magazine, with an emphasis on South Asia and Eastern Europe. Reach them at: ecrunden@thinkprogress.org.

On the Disturbing Return of Black Lung

Friday, July 27th, 2018

The push to revive America’s coal industry has generated alarm because it is almost certain to worsen the climate crisis. But the industry also brings an immediate human cost: black lung disease. Black lung is an often fatal condition contracted by miners who breathe in coal and silica dust on the job. Rates of the disease dropped towards the end of the 20th century, thanks in part to federally mandated reductions in the amount of coal dust miners were allowed to breathe in. Now, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have documented a troubling new trend: Black lung disease cases, particularly among younger miners, have risen sharply since the mid-1990s.

One chart from the group, published by the New York Times earlier in 2018, shows that in 1995 there were “3.7 cases per 1,000 miners.” By 2015, that number had jumped to over 50 cases per 1,000 miners.

Overall, there has been a steady upsurge in the number of cases of black lung, including in its most aggressive forms. A 2018 National Public Radio report identified many reasons for the increase, including the fact that many miners are working longer hours with less time to rest and recover between shifts. Advances in mining technology have also led to the use of more powerful extraction machines that throw more toxic coal dust into the air and into the lungs of coal miners. These factors have made the coal mining regions of Appalachia the “epicenter of one of the worst industrial health disasters in U.S. history,” according to a recent article by Kentucky lawyer, Evan Smith.

Smith advocates on behalf of coal miners through his work at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. Writing for the West Virginia Law Review, Smith calls the uptick in black lung cases evidence of a “gut-wrenching reversal of 20th century progress.” Black lung disease is preventable, Smith insists, and should have gone the way of smallpox long ago. (Black lung is actually not a medical term, Smith points out, and notes that it is just one name for a host of debilitating physical conditions experienced by miners.) Although mining has always been a dangerous occupation, rates of black lung disease did drop from the 1970’s until the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to improved workplace and environmental regulations.

Dangerous working conditions

Looking beyond black lung, recent incidents such as the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia have shown that working conditions for coal miners often remain harrowingly unsafe. Portions of the Upper Big Branch mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 workers. In the aftermath, autopsies were carried out on a majority of the lungs of those killed, revealing that 71 percent of them had black lung disease, including a worker who was just 25 years old when he died. Upper Big Branch was owned then by Massey Energy, whose CEO, Don Blankenship, was sentenced to one year in prison for his role in making the mine an unsafe place to work.

One of the things that made the Upper Big Branch mine so unsafe was the fact that Blankenship had driven out the miners’ union. Blankenship, who is a current  U.S. Senate candidate in West Virginia as a member of the Constitution Party, “made it his personal campaign to break the union at the mine,” according to a 2010 report by Public Radio International. This resulted in workers having to take on 12-hour shifts as one of Massey Energy’s reported cost-cutting measures. What followed was a number of articles arguing, as reporters Taylor Kuykendall and Hira Fawad did in 2015, that union-staffed mines are more productive and less dangerous for workers. One key piece of Farwad and Kuykendall’s evidence for this comes from safety records in 2014, when just one out of 16 work-related mining deaths occurred at a union site.

Despite Kentucky’s history of worker militancy, today there are zero union mines left in the state, which is at the heart of Appalachian coal country. Still, a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth continues to advocate on behalf of the thousands of coal miners who work in the state. Acknowledging the rise in black lung disease among miners, the group aims to move away from relying on toxic, fossil fuel industry jobs such as coal mining.

A dying industry

A 30-year-old organization, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was born out of a late 1970s movement that documented who was benefiting most from Kentucky’s coal-rich land. (Hint: it wasn’t local communities.) The group organizes workers and residents around its vision of a more inclusive, democratic society and cites direct action as one of its key strategies. Right now, a prominent feature of the group’s work is called Appalachian Transition, which is built around the recognition that, despite Trump’s campaign rallies, coal mining is a dying industry. The goal, according to the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth website, is to “support coal communities and workers as we shift away from a fossil fuel economy to one that is more sustainable and equitable.”

The group criticizes the instability and inequity of the coal industry, which often results in large, non-union corporations cutting a destructive path through Kentucky’s rural communities. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth shares stories of people who have reclaimed the land in the Kentucky mountains, in order to reinvest in the environment and learn 21st century skills such as restorative agricultural practices and sustainable forestry—something that has been done in other coal-producing regions in Germany. The ultimate goal is the creation of a base of grassroots power among Kentuckians, even as the state’s legislature continues to align itself with corporate interests.

For proof, one has to look no further than a recent case concerning black lung disease and workers’ rights. Just weeks ago, executives from the now-closed Armstrong Coal company in Owensboro, Kentucky were charged with “falsifying federally mandated coal dust tests designed to protect miners from incurable black lung disease,” as an editorial in the Lexington Courier Journal put it. The case against Armstrong Coal was prompted by two coal miners who went public with their story in 2014, detailing the destructive impact of black lung disease on their lives. Workers felt forced into going along with the company’s deceptive policies, according to news reports—a situation not unlike that in many mines, especially where union protection has been lost.

The Armstrong Coal case prompted another Kentucky newspaper’s editorial board to declare that “coal miners’ lives still matter,” yet it might be hard for those seeking medical help for black lung disease in Kentucky to believe this. In July, new state laws went into effect that not only make it harder for workers hurt on the job to qualify for workers compensation, but also “excludes the most qualified physicians from being heard in black lung claims.” When the laws were passed, Smith, of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, told National Public Radio that this move “keeps Kentucky coal miners from using highly qualified and reliable experts to prove their state black lung claims [and] looks like just another step in the race to the bottom to gut worker protections.”

So, when Donald Trump and his allies wax poetic about bringing “clean, beautiful coal” jobs back to places like Kentucky, it seems fair to ask a simple question: at what cost?

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Kentucky lawmakers put decisions on black lung treatments in hands of industry-paid doctors

Monday, April 9th, 2018

The political assault on science in the age of Trump has reached a point where even medical specialties are rising up in protest. Radiologists are fighting back against a new Kentucky law that excludes them from the black lung claims process for coal miners in the state.

Under the new legislation, if a miner files a black lung claim with the state, only a federally licensed pulmonologist can review the X-rays and ultimately make a diagnosis. Previously, radiologists could offer a diagnosis as well.

The legislation, part of a larger workers’ compensation bill signed into law by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) on March 30, is expected to make it more difficult for coal miners stricken with black lung disease to receive benefits for treating their disease and living with black lung. The workers’ compensation bill was supported by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Coal Association. Labor groups strongly opposed it.

The American College of Radiology, a national organization representing more than 38,000 radiologists, said it is troubled that Kentucky lawmakers stepped in to determine who is qualified to read the X-rays of coal miners seeking compensation for black lung disease. A process is already in place to determine whether a physician is qualified to review black lung cases, the group said.

“To have that established process superseded by legislators and a political process is inappropriate,” American College of Radiology Chief Executive Officer William Thorwarth Jr. M.D., said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress on Monday.

Thorwarth emphasized that politics should be left out of the black lung claims process. “We hope that the Kentucky legislature will rescind this new law and work with medical providers to save more lives,” he said.

Phillip Wheeler, an attorney in Pikeville, Kentucky who represents coal miners seeking state black lung benefits, said it’s possible the new law could be overturned on appeal. The law applies the rule only to workers who file claims for black lung and not workers in other industries who file benefit claims, Wheeler said Monday in an interview with ThinkProgress.

An appeals court could find that the law violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law by limiting the type of doctors who can be used in black lung cases, while workers in other occupations aren’t subjected to the same limits when they apply for worker’s compensation benefits.

The new law also could prove problematic because it drastically reduces the number of physicians in Kentucky permitted to read the chest X-rays when coal miners file a black lung claim, Wheeler said. Six doctors in Kentucky will now be eligible to conduct the exams, according to an NPR review of federal black lung cases. At least half of them “have collected hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars form the coal industry over the last 25 to 30 years,” Wheeler said.

“The three primary doctors that will be doing most of these exams have shown a distinct bias against coal miners through the years,” he said.

Physicians who read chest X-rays for work-related diseases like black lung — also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis — are known as “B readers” and are certified by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for both federal and state compensation claims. B readers do not specifically have to be pulmonologists or radiologists, though they can be both.

Black lung is common term for several respiratory diseases that share a single cause: breathing in coal mine dust. Over time, black lung disease causes a person’s lungs to become coated in the black particulates that miners inhaled during their time in the mines. Their passageways are marked by dark scars and hard nodules.

The Kentucky Coal Association “basically drafted the legislation,” Wheeler said, explaining why the new law will likely make it more difficult for miners to win black lung claims cases.

The new Kentucky law coincides with the Trump administration’s decision to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

President Donald Trump pledged to end the so-called war on coal but has thus far done nothing to help coal miners who have spent years working in mines win black lung benefits.

Likewise, Kentucky lawmakers are showing a preference for industry profits over occupational health. Evan Smith, an attorney at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, said in a tweet that the new law will keep the state’s coal miners from using “highly qualified and reliable experts to prove their state black lung claims.”

The law “looks like just another step in the race to the bottom to gut worker protections,” Smith said.

Black lung has made a comeback in recent years. The disease now sickens about one in 14 underground miners with more than 25 years’ experience who submit to voluntary checkups, according to a recent study, a rate nearly double that from the disease’s lowest point from 1995 to 1999.

Kentucky is one of the states that has witnessed the resurgence in the most advanced form of black lung disease, which is debilitating and deadly.

Lawmakers included the provision in the new worker compensation law even though radiologists are considered to be the most qualified among doctors certified to diagnose black lung disease.

State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican who represents a district in northern Kentucky, sponsored the legislation. He told NPR that, when writing the law, he relied on the expertise of those who understand the issue — “the industry, coal companies and attorneys.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 9, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

Trump’s rollback of environmental rules will fail to bring back coal, report says

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

“Can Coal Make a Comeback?” asks a new report by Columbia University researchers.

Spoiler alert: In its first few pages, the report states that President Donald Trump will almost certainly fail to bring jobs back to coal country or dramatically boost coal production.

Rolling back environmental regulations, as the Trump administration frantically sought to do during its first 100 days, will not “materially improve” economic conditions in the nation’s coal communities, according to the report.

During Trump’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly vowed to end a “war on coal” allegedly waged by the Obama administration. But as long as natural gas prices remain at or near current levels, U.S. coal consumption will continue to decline despite the Trump administration’s plans to roll back Obama-era regulations, the report says.

“Responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the coal sector?—?including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence?—?rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived,” the report says.

The report was released by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It was authored by Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy; Trevor Houser, a partner at consulting firm Rhodium Group; and Peter Marsters, a research analyst with Rhodium Group.

The report seeks to offer an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal industry to collapse. It then examines the prospects for a recovery of coal production and employment by modeling the impact of Trump’s executive order directing agencies to review or rescind several Obama-era environmental regulations and assessing the global coal market outlook.

Even coal industry executives and coal country politicians have dialed down their rhetoric in recent months, according to the report. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a Trump supporter, urged him to set more modest goals during the campaign and has warned post-election that there is little chance U.S. production can return to pre-recession levels.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) also cautioned?—?after the election?—?that ending the “war on coal” might not bring jobs back to his home state of Kentucky.

The Columbia University report isn’t the first to rain on Trump’s coal parade. In a report released earlier this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance emphasized U.S. coal’s main problem “has been cheap natural gas and renewable power, not a politically driven ‘war on coal.’”

But words of caution haven’t stopped Trump from waging a crusade for coal. Two weeks into his presidency, Trump signed a congressional joint resolution eliminating the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule finalized in 2016 by the Obama Administration that would have limited the amount of mining waste coal companies can dispose into streams and waterways. In late March, Trump signed the executive order that called on the EPA to “review” the Clean Power Plan, the agency’s carbon-reduction plan for new power plants.

“Many of these actions will take months for agencies to implement and will be challenged in the courts. But they are clearly designed to communicate Trump’s commitment to deliver on his campaign promises,” the Columbia University report said. “Indeed, he signed his March 28 [order] at the EPA in front of a group of coal miners, and after signing, turned to them and said, ‘C’mon fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You are going back to work.’”

In the report’s best-case scenario for coal that the authors modeled, U.S. production would see only a modest recovery to 2013 levels at just under 1 billion tons a year. In its worst-case scenario, consumption falls from 730 million short tons in 2016 to 688 million short tons in 2020 despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama administration climate regulations.

Rather than bet on a recovery in coal production, coal communities, governments, and other private and public sector organizations should work together to “leverage the other assets” that exist in coal country to attract investment in new sources of job creation and economic growth, the study said.

“This certainly isn’t easy,” the authors wrote. “Coal communities in particular are often geographically remote and lack the infrastructure necessary to attract large-scale investment. Miners and others in the local labor market often lack the skills necessary for jobs that offer the kind of compensation available in coal mining.”

The federal government could offer plenty of help to accelerate locally driven economic diversification efforts, according to the report. Infrastructure investment, tax credits, and re-purposing of abandoned mine land that has other economic use can attract new investment and job creation, it says.

“But this all requires a clear-eyed assessment of the outlook for the coal industry and a commitment to put sustainable solutions ahead of politically expedient talking points,” the report says.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on May 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate reporter for Think Progress. Contact him at mhand@americanprogress.org.

Under Trump, coal communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Blair Zimmerman, Pennsylvania’s Greene County Commissioner, knows coal. As a mine worker for 40 years and then a politician in southwestern Pennsylvania, he knows how important coal is to both the identity and economic stability of his community. He’s even called the White House a few times since President Donald Trump took office, asking the president—who ran on a platform of supporting coal miners that he argued had been forgotten by Washington—to renew health insurance for thousands of retired coal miners.

But he doesn’t think that anything Trump does will bring coal jobs back to levels seen in the industry’s heyday.

“The coal industry is going to be around for years, but to bring it back—that’s not going to happen. [Utilities] are not going to invest in fossil-fueled power plants,” Zimmerman said. When he talked about the promises Trump made to places like Greene County, a community of just over 36,000 situated on the state’s southwest border, Zimmerman laughed, raising his voice a little.

“He doesn’t have a plan. That was all political B.S.,” Zimmerman said. “He said it just to get elected.”

And it worked, because of places like Greene County—in November, Trump overwhelmingly carried the county’s vote, beating Hillary Clinton by 40 points.

One hundred days into his presidency, however, Trump’s actions to help coal communities have been limited to cutting environmental regulations that experts say will do little to help bring mining jobs back.

Meanwhile, Trump’s skinny budget, released in March, would cut funding to seven of the 12 federal programs aimed at revitalizing struggling coal communities. Since 2015, these programs have functioned together under the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, Initiative. These Obama-era programs include things like workforce training, to help unemployed coal miners obtain necessary skills for finding new jobs, and economic development, to help new businesses move into these communities. According to a new Center for American Progress analysis, Trump’s proposed budget would cut at least $1.13 billion from these programs. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.

“A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners.”

“Having the administration fund programs that direct money into economic development in the coalfields is really the only way to truly help people right now that are living and working in these communities,” Veronica Coptis, a lifelong Greene County resident and executive director of Coalfield Justice, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners, but more concerned with ensuring that coal companies continue to have more control.”

In Greene County, where the unemployment rate is currently 6.7 percent(about two percent higher than the national average), POWER Initiative funds have been hugely useful for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, a body that oversees programs aimed at helping job seekers find employment and learn skills in southwest Pennsylvania.

Ami Gatts, who has worked for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board for 25 years, rising to the position of director two and a half years ago, said that the board has received over $1.5 million in POWER Initiative funds, which has paid for things like supportive services to help unemployed workers get computers or transportation for school, or training seminars aimed at helping out-of-work miners obtain new skills. Through POWER Initiative funding, for instance, the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board can reimburse companies up to $8,000 taking a chance on an untrained worker. The employee gets a full salary, while the company is taking less of a financial risk on its new hire.

“When you cut those funds, we don’t have the money to train people to make a skilled workforce,” Gatts said. “It’s going to affect our employers, and it’s going to affect the people who need those skills. It’s very detrimental.”

Beyond cutting programs, however, Gatts said that Trump’s rhetoric about coal jobs coming back has a paralyzing impact on coal communities, where many workers would rather go back to familiar jobs than embark than learn a new trade or skills. Many unemployed coal workers have been hesitant to take advantage of the workforce training services provided to the community?—?because they are convinced that the coal industry, with Trump’s help, will rebound to its former glory.

“Every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

“Every time they put out hope, it stymies people. They just stop and they don’t move forward,” Gatts said. “Change is not something people welcome, and every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

The story of the fall of the coal industry has been one of a steady, decades-long decline, with the number of coal mining jobs falling from 177,500 in 1985 to just over 50,000 today. As both a candidate and as president, Trump has made a great many promises to coal communities devastated by a rise in automation and competition from natural gas and renewable energy. He has promised to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration’s signature domestic climate regulation aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. He has pledged to repeal environmental regulations aimed at protecting streams from mining pollution, and has promised to do away with other regulatory burdens that he argues have been killing the coal industry.

But while these moves may boost coal production slightly—and line the pockets of coal executives in the process—they will do little to stem the production of cheap natural gas or slow the automation of the coal industry. Utilities have already said that Trump’s recent actions have not changed their outlook on coal as an energy source, nor have the actions caused utility executives to reconsider previously scheduled coal plant closures. In short, Trump’s regulatory assault will do little to bring back coal jobs to the regions where he’s promised relief.

Mining jobs paid well—an average of $60,000 a year for people just starting in the industry. And finding unemployed miners jobs that pay similar wages is not easy—especially when workers lack particular skills that employers are looking for. Many unemployed miners, as well as potential employers, are either unwilling or unable to take on the financial burden of paying for a particular kind of skill training, which is why POWER Initiative funds have been so crucial for entities like the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board in trying to address the gap between unemployed workers and potential employers.

“In order to get the skills, you need to have money to pay for the training,” Gatts said. “If you take that away from us, you’re not going to be offering our employers any trained workers.”

Both Gatts and Commissioner Zimmerman note, however, that POWER Initiative funds can only go so far—and that it means little to the community to have a trained workforce without opportunities for employment within the community.

“The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

“We have to bring in other industries, and support the guys that are here now in the coal industry,” Zimmerman said. “The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

Both Zimmerman and Gatts are looking to the technology sector as a potential new industry for Greene County—they argue that since tech work really only requires an internet connection, companies could find lots of potential workers in economically-depressed coal communities, as long as those communities have access to education and training. It’s a strategy that is similar in many ways to candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed plan for revitalizing coal communities, which involved federal support for local education and training programs as well as major investment in expanding broadband access for rural communities.

Since 2015, Greene County has been partnering with a nonprofit called Mined Minds, which was started by tech consultant Amanda Laucher, who was born in Greene County but moved to Chicago to work in tech. Together with her partner Jonathan Graham, Minded Minds has begun offering coding bootcamps to teach software development and tech skills to unemployed miners and others in Greene County and the surrounding area.

“We strongly believe that there is talent in these areas,” Graham told ThinkProgress. And he said the program is mutually beneficial. “The tech industry is continuing to grow and getting a talented workforce is difficult and expensive.”

Graham and Laucher also offer their students both pre-apprenticeships—a combination of real world tech work and continuing workshops—as well as full apprenticeships. Mined Minds also works with companies from Silicon Valley to New York to help place graduates of the programs in tech jobs that can be done remotely, so that graduates don’t have to leave their homes, once they have completed the bootcamp and apprenticeships.

The Mined Minds programs, thus far, are self-funded, but POWER Initiative Grants have helped the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board pay for some of the associated training costs for Greene County residents. Mined Minds also recently applied for their own POWER Initiative funds, with the hopes of expanding their boot camps and reaching more residents in southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I think as a model, it makes sense. Having the support of grants means that we’re not taking all the risk ourselves in trying to bring more industry into an area,” Graham said.

He said that if the Trump administration were to cut POWER Initiative funding, it would slow—but not completely derail—their ability to expand their training programs.

“Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

But for Gatts, who has worked in economic development in this community for over a decade, losing federal funding would be a blow.

“I do think these programs are very necessary,” she said. “Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on April 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Natasha Geiling is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her at ngeiling@americanprogress.org.

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