Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Mining’

Joe Biden Thinks Coal Miners Should Learn to Code. A Real Just Transition Demands Far More.

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

Image result for mindy isserAs of 2016, there were only 50,000 coal miners in the United States, and yet they occupy so much of our political imagination and conversation around jobs, unions and climate change. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump ran on bringing coal jobs back to the United States, and Joe Biden said on December 30 that miners should learn to code, as those are the “jobs of the future.” His comments, made to a crowd in Derry, New Hampshire, were reportedly met with silence.

While coal miners aren’t the only workers in our society, coal miners’ voices do matter, and we can’t leave anyone behind. And it’s clear that they are hurting, a point illustrated by the coal miners currently blocking a train carrying coal in eastern Kentucky, demanding back pay from Quest Energy.

The coal industry is in decline, and mining jobs are disappearing. And the science shows that the vast majority of coal needs to stay in the ground if we want to have a shot at stemming climate change. But does that mean miners need to learn to code in order to earn a living? Coding isn’t necessarily bad or unimportant, and it could potentially be one of many retraining opportunities. But coal miners are skilled workers who do much more than just hit rocks all day: Many of them are trained electricians, engineers and builders. There’s no reason they necessarily need to learn new skills when their skills are easily transferable to other industries.

The Green New Deal, popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), puts forward a bold program for a just transition to a low carbon economy. Of course, this includes moving away from coal. This transition would include a federal jobs guarantee to both clean up the damage inflicted by extractive industries and to provide jobs for workers in those industries in lower carbon work. The training, expertise and experience that coal miners and other workers from these sectors have would be an invaluable contribution towards harnessing new sources of energy and repairing damage caused by climate change. Whatever skilled coal miners do next, they should have a say in it.

In These Times spoke with Terry Steele, a retired member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in West Virginia, about Joe Biden’s comments and the future of coal mining in the United States.

Mindy Isser: Can you share your work and union history?

Terry Steele: My name is Terry Steele. I have worked in the coal industry for 26 years. All that time was union: United Mine Workers. I’ve worked over 50,000 hours underground, and I belong to UMWA Local 1440 as a retired member.

Mindy: Can you describe the work you did in the mines? Feel free to be as detailed as possible.

Terry: I’ve done about everything there is to do in the mines—from running shuttle cars to roof bolting to running scoops. A lot of my mining career was on a move crew: We moved belts, we moved power, we also ran coal when the sections were down, we built stoppings. About anything there was to do in the mines, I have done it. I haven’t done any electrical or maintenance work or anything like that, but as far as running equipment and stuff I can run about anything in the mines.

Mindy: When did you become union?

Terry: I went in the mines on my 19th birthday: May 27th, 1971. I’m a fourth generation coal miner. My dad worked in the mines, my grandfather and my great grandfather all worked in the mines. At that time, if you wanted to make good money and have healthcare, that’s what you did in the area that we lived, you went into the mines.

Mindy: Why did you leave the mines?

Terry: I got laid off and had a hard time getting back on at a union mine. There were jobs in the non-union mines, but I didn’t want to do that, so I just went and started doing carpenter work and things like that. I also had to leave the area for awhile, and when I came back I took my pension at age 55, which the UMWA allowed me to do with 20 years of vested time in. I could take my pension and also get my healthcare. So I’ve done that.

Mindy: Why didn’t you want to go to a non-union mine?

Terry: Well, one reason I worked in union mines, besides the pay and healthcare and benefits, there’s another thing you can do in a union mine: You can speak your mind. And I always liked being able to do that, because when you’re underground between two rocks, there’s no one who’s going to take care of you but yourself. And in a union mine you can speak up with no fear of being retaliated against.

Mindy: Do you feel like you’re skilled as a mine worker, a skilled laborer?

Terry: I thought I was then. Some of the work that we’ve done—especially on the move crews—when you’re moving belts and power, people have been at it on these crews for years and they know every move to make. No boss has to tell them what to do, they already know what to do. Some of that work was very skilled. But the thing about it is working underground is a whole lot harder simply because you’re in close quarters, and things are not as simple underground as they are outside.

Mindy: I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but a couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden said, “Anybody who can go down 300 to 3,000 feet in a mine, sure in hell can learn to program as well, but we don’t think of it that way.” He was encouraging miners to learn to code as a transition away from mining. What do you think miners should be learning to do or transitioning towards with work? Do you think coding makes sense?

Terry: Just to be honest with you, I had to go look up what the hell coding was. I had no idea. Coding and programming is something I don’t have a clue about. And I don’t really know whether I could learn it or not. A lot of miners probably could. But the thing about this is, even if you could learn it, where in these areas are these jobs available at? Especially here in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where these miners have lived their whole lives and want to live the rest of their lives. And where are these jobs that pay money like these miners were making in the mines and that also have health care? And especially if you worked for a union mine, a pension.

Biden, in a way, makes me mad for the same reason Obama and a lot of the Democrats make me mad—and I’m a liberal. I’m a progressive Democrat. I just think this is another one of these stupid remarks that the Democratic party makes at times.

The Democratic Party has become a bunch of pussy-footers. We have become a person that takes blue collar work and labor for granted. And that’s why they lost the damn election, that’s why we have an idiot in the White House now. So I want to know where those coding jobs are at, and what they pay, and if they’re gonna last for years to come, and if a person could actually stay in an area and buy a home, and live where he wants to live with something like this.

Mindy: Everyone deserves to live where they want to live.

Terry: I think they do. My family all worked in the mines. My dad worked 45 years in the mine. He died with silicosis (lung disease) after he’d been on a respirator for two months at Cabell Huntington Hospital. I’ve seen what mining does to people. It kills people. We live in an area here where they wanted us to be miners, and in a way they forced us to be miners. This is not as simple as what Biden makes it out to be—“just go ahead and do this if you can’t do that.”

We’ve put up with this for years in our area where we live. For many years, West Virginia was as blue as a state could be. But we ended up being first in the things that were bad, and last in the things that were good. So, I can see why the people in this state are mad. But I think we jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now we have an idiot in there that tells us what we like to hear, but he definitely don’t do what we know needs to be done.

Mindy: And what do you think needs to be done?

Terry: For one thing, coal is not going to be around forever. And I’ll tell everybody that, I’ll even tell my union officials that. I’m a union miner, I’m not a coal miner. We understand it good in our local because we’re all retired. Retired people look at things differently than what the active coal miner would. We’ve already put our time in. We’ve already worked all we’re gonna work. So we’re looking to get what was promised, and coal companies certainly haven’t lived up to their responsibilities. So it’s kind of passed over to the taxpayers, and then the taxpayers are saying, “Why should I take care of something like your pension or your healthcare or stuff like that?”

And I would tell them, simply, that we’re in this shape mostly because these coal companies filed bankruptcy under laws that allow corporations to pass the responsibilities to the taxpayers. So if you’re angry because the coal companies’ responsibilities were passed on to you and you voted for these sons of bitches, don’t quarrel at me, honey, you’re quarrelling at the wrong man. Because we put our time in, we’ve done what was required of us. We worked a dangerous occupation.

Mindy: Do you have any ideas of jobs miners could do that are similar to the jobs they’ve already been doing?

Terry: We’ve been in the energy industry. We have provided our electric, we’ve provided the coal to make steel from, we’ve provided the things that the country needed to have during the time of war. And here in the southern part of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia, after they mined most of the coal underground, they started blowing the tops of the mountains off: mountain-top removal. And they blew them off under the pretense of creating jobs, when actually what it did was put underground miners out of work. It was a cheap way of making more money for coal corporations before they took their last shit on people and moved out of the area.

In our area right now, people think coal is coming back. I am under no impression at all that coal is ever going to be coming back. The county where I was raised in—Mingo—most of the coal there has already been mined. About all that’s left is coal that’s hard to get to and that they have to cut a lot of rock to even mine, which will cause more cases of Black Lung. And Black Lung is on the increase again, and that’s one reason why.

You asked me what could these areas do and what kind of jobs could these areas have. One thing I’ve always been hollering about is I’m sitting here—I’m in Nicholas County right now—we own a home in Nicholas County. We also own our home in Mingo County. The union allowed me to do that. Because of the union, because I’m union. My wife belongs to the union too, she was a school teacher. These jobs allow you to do things you couldn’t do.

But my whole point is, I’m looking right now as I’m talking to you, at dozens of wind turbines in Greenbrier County. And they’re building more. These things have to be built somewhere. Solar panels have to be built somewhere. Batteries and the technology that goes along with storing electricity has to be built somewhere. What other, better place to build them then these areas that have no jobs, that have sacrificed everything for this country already, than areas like this right here?

I know for wind turbines, there’s probably a lot of pipe fitting and welding and things along those lines, which miners are good at. As far as solar jobs, I don’t know what it entails exactly, but miners are smart enough to do those things if they’re trained. That’s the only thing I think that Biden was right on in that sense, that they’re smart enough to do some of these jobs with the right training. But to get people to get behind something like the Green New Deal, it’s difficult until you give them something to go on. Build one of these things and hire them, and you’d see them flood to your site. You’d see them flood to these jobs.

Mindy: If you could wave a magic wand in your area, what kind of jobs would you hope for? Would it be rebuilding coal towns, creating public gardens, cleaning coal ash? Anything you could think of in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, what would you want those jobs to be?

Terry: From what I do know of the Green New Deal, the transition off of dirty fuels onto newer energy sources, like solar jobs and building wind turbines and battery and storage power. It should be in areas that have had the coal mining, areas that are in a depressed state right now. We’re the ones that need those jobs, and it could create thousands of new jobs. It could create a different type of mindset. And we could do them, our miners could do those jobs. Miners can weld, they can build stuff, they’re great with their hands, and they’re great with their minds, too. We could do these things, but right now we have a country that seems like they want to shoot these jobs off to some other place where they can get them done cheaper instead of bringing them back here. And I think the Democratic Party is guilty of these things.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was a total screwup on Bill Clinton. It’s like what they said, that Bill Clinton got things done for Republicans that they could have never get done for themselves. He is what has happened to the Democratic Party, people like Clinton, and Obama to a certain extent. And that’s why Hilary got beat. People were tired of hearing the same old same old bullshit as they kept on going downhill.

Mindy: Who do you like for president right now?

Terry: There’s two I really like. I’ve been a Bernie man, and I could vote for Elizabeth Warren. I do not like Joe Biden, and I do not like Pete Buttigeg, because I think he’s a middle-of-the-road guy too. And I have to tell people the only thing that happens to middle of the road people is like a dog that sits in the middle of the road—most of the time they get run over. And that’s how I feel about Biden and several of the others too, including the senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar.

Mindy: I’m curious about your thoughts, and maybe some of the other retirees’ thoughts, around climate change. Does everyone believe in climate change? Are people resistant to it because they want coal jobs to come back?

Terry: I know that man is affecting climate, I know that. I think several of our members in our local know that, especially ones that are in positions of control know that. We have a very progressive local, and I do think we’ve had pretty good leadership higher up in the union. I think they’ve done a good job, especially on our healthcare and our pensions. But you know, they’re in a tough boat to tow right now, because they’re the leader of a dying industry. So when you’re the leader of a dying industry, you have to find other ways to grow union membership. And the union is not just coal miners, we have other workers who are members. And I think we need to be more worried about finding union people than we should be about finding coal people.

I’m an oddball: I’m a coal miner who’s an environmentalist. But I can see the mistakes in both the coal industry and in the environmental industry. Every time you take somebody’s job, there’s a face behind that, there’s a family behind that. There’s somebody that’s looking to have something for Christmas that don’t have shit, after you take their job and you don’t give them no hope for a future or anything.

That’s what some of the environmental people have done to this area, even though they were right—mountaintop removal should have been stopped. But they could have come in here and brought 500 good green jobs by building a solar plant, or something that people could have worked at. And instead of creating 500 miners or workers who are screaming at you, you could have created 500 environmentalists. Because they just need work. They don’t care if it’s coal mining. I’ve never met a miner who wanted his son or his daughter to go into the coal industry, to go underground between two rocks, because of how dangerous it is. But we kept electing people who decided that’s the only thing we could do.

Mindy: I know you said you’re an oddball because you’re an environmentalist coal miner, and I am wondering what you think UMWA and other miners think about the Green New Deal and climate change? Do they believe it’s real?

Terry: It’s hard to get somebody to believe in something if your job depends on not believing in it. So, we have that group. But we have other people, especially in locals like ours, that actually do believe that we’re going to have to do something else to make a living in our area if we’re going to live here and our children are going to live here. We’re going to have to get our people to look at the facts. And train our people, and train our union people to be smarter than these idiots that are friends of coal people. And I think we can do that, I think we have good leadership in the UMWA. I think getting 100,000 miners pensions and healthcare secured is a pretty big hurdle.

The one thing I think that would probably help to unionize this whole country is if we would take the healthcare issue off of the table to start with, and just give everybody government healthcare like they should have. You know, when you start bargaining, that’s the first thing now that comes up. So take that off the table and we’ll bargain for what we need to be bargaining for: wages and pensions and days off and safety and things.

Mindy: What do you think the union could do to lead on climate change? It feels like we’re trying to hold on to these industries that are dying, and like we are banging on this door that’s closed. What do you think union leadership could do to embrace the Green New Deal, and accept the fact that climate change is real and move forward from there?

Terry: As far as transitioning to something else, they need to be looking at other industries. Take Walmart for one thing. If Walmart was unionized, it would be the biggest union in the world. That probably won’t happen because people don’t believe that it could happen.

We keep telling people about how good the economy is and everything, but yet, if you look at it—I read something today that about 40% of people, if they miss their next payday, they couldn’t pay their bills. And the primary reason for that is low wages, no healthcare, and no pension system. Something that unions brought us.

Mindy: How do you think the labor movement and the climate movement can link their struggles together more? Like with mountaintop removal—the environmentalists were right, but it didn’t mean that union members were on board or on their side. So what do you think can be done to get those two sides united for good green jobs?

Terry: People who are really pushing the green jobs need to push for are for jobs to go into these areas that are struggling right now, and to let them be union. I know that would break some of their hearts—to come in here and give something in these areas and let them be union. But you’ll see what that does about switching some of the coal miners’ mindsets in these areas.

We need to go into these areas where the fight needs to take place and build these plants. Build them in these areas that have supplied the energy and the needs for this country for the last hundred years, and build them in these areas where people have suffered—both environmentally and physically, in the sense that the land has suffered and also the people have suffered. I think if you do that, and have them to be union, then you’ll get the union in on it. Because the UMWA is, I believe, a union that will be open to any industry that wants to become a member of the UMWA. It’s like I said, are we coal miners or are we union miners? I’m a union miner.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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.

Uranium Mine and Mill Workers are Dying, and Nobody Will Take Responsibility

Monday, February 15th, 2016

To talk to former uranium miners and their families is to talk about the dead and the dying. Brothers and sisters, coworkers and friends: a litany of names and diseases. Many were, as one worker put it, “ate up with cancer,” while others died from various lung and kidney diseases. When the former workers mention their own diseases, it’s clear, though unspoken, that they’re also dying. Some don’t wait for the disease to take them: “Poor guy says he don’t wanna be in a diaper,” says one worker of his brother-in-law, a former miner with lung disease who was facing hospice. “He got a gun and shot himself.”

Women who worked in the mines and mills also bore the risk of reproductive disorders and babies with birth defects. “[Supervisors] told me … as long as I could do the job, there was no reason to worry about my baby,” says Linda Evers, 57. Both of her children had birth defects. Her daughter was born without hips.

download (1)

Linda Evers, who worked in a uranium mill in the 1970s, says, “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort.” (Photograph by Joseph Sorrentino)

I spent a week interviewing former uranium workers (those who worked in the mines and the mills and, sometimes, both) and their families in the towns of Grants and Church Rock, N.M.: ground zero for uranium mining from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s. Years, sometimes decades, after laboring in the mines and mills, workers exhibit diseases associated with uranium exposure. The federal government, under a program called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), has paid more than $750 million in restitution to uranium workers on nearly 8,000 claims. But in order to receive compensation, workers have to have been employed before 1972—the year the federal government stopped purchasing uranium for its nuclear arms build-up. The workers I spoke with are part of a group of thousands who worked in uranium mines or mills after December 31, 1971, and have diseases linked to uranium exposure, but, so far, cannot get compensation from RECA.

Spouses of former workers also suffer health effects, even though they may have never set foot in a mine or mill. The Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee, an advocacy organization cofounded by Linda Evers, surveyed 421 wives of uranium workers and found that 40 percent reported miscarriages, stillbirths or children with birth defects. One vector of contamination may have been laundry brought home from the mines. Cipriano Lucero, 61, worked in the Anaconda mill, where uranium was processed into yellowcake, a toxic substance. “[His clothes] were stinky and yellow and no matter how much bleach, they would never come out, they were still yellow,” says his wife, Liz, adding, “I would wash his clothes with our clothes.”

Liz was diagnosed with tumors in her ovaries when she was 28 and had to have a hysterectomy. She says the doctor told her it was uranium-related. Liz and Cipriano cofounded the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee with Evers.

So who’s to blame?

Uranium mining has long been known to be dangerous work. As early as 1546, in Schneeberg, Germany, it was noted that large numbers of uranium miners were dying from lung disease. The first scientific report linking uranium mining and lung disease was published in Germany in 1879, and that disease was shown in 1913 to be lung cancer. More scientific articles in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to indicate that radon and “radon daughters,” byproducts of uranium decay, were the primary cause.

But, driven by the Cold War push for nuclear arms, uranium mining continued unchecked with “little attention… paid to the health of uranium miners,” according to a Department of Labor historian.

In 1950, an Irish-Navajo sheep herder named Paddy Martinez found a bright yellow rock of uranium ore near Haystack, N.M. That set off a mining boom in the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet), providing sorely needed jobs.

“[The men] wanted to provide for their families, and the [mining] companies came in and said, ‘Hey, you guys are gonna make good money, have good benefits,’ ” says Liz Lucero. When she and Cipriano first got married, in 1976, he was working in a gas station for $3.85/hour. He took a job at the Anaconda mill the next year in order to get benefits and more money; about, he figures, $6 an hour. “Had to,” he says. “Had to support our family.”

Companies also lured workers with patriotism. “Every day, they told us we were doing our part for the Cold War effort,” says Linda Evers. “They’d tell us, ‘We won the Cold War because of you guys.’”

As the boom took off, Grants declared itself “The Uranium Capital of the World.”

Workers like Evers say they didn’t understand the dangers of uranium exposure, in part because the diseases take years to manifest. “When I was working, no one had been getting sick,” says Evers.

During the 1960s, Navajos working in uranium mines, few of whom smoked cigarettes, started experiencing high rates of lung cancer. Advocates and workers pressured the federal government—the sole purchaser of uranium from 1948 until 1971—for remedies. In 1979, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced the first bill to compensate uranium workers and others for diseases attributable to radiation exposure, but it wasn’t until 1990 that RECA became law. With RECA, the government recognized its responsibility for the harm done to uranium miners and apologized “on behalf of the nation.” A 2000 bill expanded RECA to cover uranium mill workers, ore transporters and above-ground miners. Workers with diseases such as lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis are eligible for $100,000 in restitution. But the act only covers workers who were employed before 1972.

The Four Corners mining boom continued, however, thanks to nuclear power. It didn’t slow until 1979, when a glut of uranium on the world market led to a steep price drop, and layoffs began. By 1989, the last conventional uranium mine in New Mexico had closed.

All of the dozen former workers interviewed for this article worked after 1971 and are therefore denied RECA benefits. Tommy Reed, who worked in the mines until 1983 and has a constant cough, as well as skin and lung problems, finds this untenable. “We did the same work, have the same diseases, but we’re not covered,” he says. “What’s the rationale behind that?”

According to Chris Shuey, who directs the Uranium Impact Assessment Study at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, the government reasoned its responsibility ended in 1971 when it stopped purchasing uranium. Many Congress members, he adds, believe the new standards on radiation exposure passed in 1969 protected uranium workers. Yet, post-1971 workers are still dying. Something didn’t work.

A failure to regulate

Health and safety protections for uranium workers were, for many years, spotty at best and negligent at worst. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines (BOM), established in 1910 to reduce accidents, had little regulatory authority and was also tasked with “mineral resource development.” State laws were piecemeal: In 1958, for example, New Mexico instituted a policy to “clear all areas” of mines that exceeded safe levels of radon, but “there was limited enforcement,”according to a 2002 National Institutes of Health paper by Doug Brugge and Rob Goble.

Federal responsibility for mine safety was reshuffled twice in the 1970s. The Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration(MESA) took over for the BOM in 1973 due to concerns about conflicts of interest. In 1978, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) replaced MESA as part of the sweeping reforms of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. MSHA also assumed responsibility for uranium mills.

MSHA’s motto is “Protecting Miners’ Safety and Health Since 1978.” Former uranium workers interviewed—all of whom worked at mines and mills from the mid-1970s through 1982 or 1983— don’t believe it did a very good job.

Radon is “one of the most potent carcinogens known,” according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. But during the 1970s, government regulations didn’t mandate regular federal inspections to measure radon levels at uranium mines. Neither MSHA nor the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (which inherited some of the BOM’s responsibilities) could provide In These Times with confirmation that the government conducted inspections for radon levels at that time. Companies were supposed to self-monitor, and if they detected high levels of radon, implement safety measures.

By 1981, MSHA was supposed to be checking radon levels at the mines annually. Several workers remember inspections, but told In These Times that when inspectors were coming, supervisors had workers barricade the unsafe areas. When the inspectors left, the barricades came down and the workers went back in. At mills, “[inspectors] never got out of the trucks,” says Evers. “Maybe they did, but I never saw them.”

One effective way to reduce exposure to radon is through ventilation. All underground mines are supposed to be well-ventilated, and according to 1973 guidelines, uranium mines specifically had to have “an adequate quantity of good-quality air” in working areas so as to keep radon levels below the threshold. But in a survey of 1,302 post-1971 workers conducted by the Post ’71 Uranium Workers Committee in 2009, only 14 percent said their work areas had adequate ventilation; 36 percent said no and almost half answered “sometimes.”

The ventilation guidelines didn’t extend to uranium mills, despite exposure hazards there as well. At mills, uranium ore is refined into yellowcake, which is 80 percent to 90 percent uranium oxide. When inhaled, it can become embedded in the lungs, increasing the risk of pulmonary fibrosis, which can be fatal. When ingested, it can damage the kidneys.

Cipriano Lucero worked in uranium mills from 1977 to 1982. He has pulmonary fibrosis, and one of his kidneys failed when he was 48, necessitating a transplant. He uses a continuous positive pressure airway machine at night and uses an oxygen tank during the day. Asked whether there was proper ventilation in the mills where he worked, Lucero simply replies, “Not really.” Linda Evers says the dust was so bad in mills that she sometimes couldn’t see. “They had exhaust fans,” she says, “but it wasn’t anything different than an oversized box fan. They just moved [the dust] around.

“We were allowed one dust mask a month, a paper dust mask,” she continues. “After one shift, they were clogged, so we just wore bandanas, or nothing.”

Lucero agrees: “We had masks but they were useless … paper masks only. Sometimes you wouldn’t even have a mask, breathing in all that dust.” Workers often coughed up black soot.

Given the dangers of working with uranium, it would seem that companies should have provided extensive training on radiation hazards—but they did so at their own discretion. “We had a class, lasted about an hour or two,” said Lucero. “Mostly about first aid, if you hurt yourself, how to wrap it.” They didn’t talk about radiation. Larry King, who worked in the mines, mainly as a surveyor, for eight years, said he had only one safety meeting and that was when he started work.

“No one told us of the hazards of radiation, uranium or radon,” he says. Seventy-nine percent of the workers questioned in the Post ’71 survey believed that safety measures—including information and equipment—were inadequate.

Surrounded

Church Rock is located in the Navajo Nation, 55 miles west of Grants. Nestled in red rock hills, the town gets its name from a formation that looks like a steeple. Local Navajo were drawn to the mines, like the residents of Grants, because of the well-paying jobs. Because Navajo miners often worked within walking distance of their homes, their risk of exposure was heightened.

Larry King, who is Navajo, lives about five miles from the entrance to Church Rock Mine, off a gravel road just past a hand-painted “Old Church Rock Mine Road” sign. In addition to the overwhelming likelihood of uranium exposure at work in the mine, there’s a strong chance he was, and may still be, exposed at home. His house is a short distance from where, on July 16, 1979, a tailings pond dam broke, releasing 93 million gallons of radioactive water. It was, by volume, the largest single release of radioactivity in the United States.

King is a sturdy-looking 58-year-old, but he suffers from respiratory problems that leave him fatigued and short of breath when he works on his property, which includes 13 cattle. “I used to do quite a bit of work several years ago, and now I’m limited,” he says.

Five miles north of where King lives is the home of Edith Hood, also a Navajo former mine worker. She worked as a probe technician in the Kerr McGee mine for a total of six years. A quiet 64-year-old, she’s still energetic despite having been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006. Her front yard is less than half a mile from the abandoned mine where she once worked. Just a short distance away is a buried tailings pile—mine waste that contains uranium and may still be giving off radon. “Since we live and work here,” she says, “it’s a double whammy.”

Waiting

In 2015, bills to amend RECA to include post-1971 workers were introduced in the House and Senate, spearheaded by three Democratic New Mexico legislators: Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

It’s the fourth attempt since 2000. Keith Killian, a private attorney in Grand Junction, Colo., who is fighting to get compensation for post-1971 workers, sees reason for “guarded” optimism. “There are bipartisan sponsors,” he says. “That’s really good. In the past we didn’t have a lot of Republicans interested.”

Still, no bill has received a hearing and nothing is scheduled. Neither Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) nor House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte responded to requests for comment.

Cipriano Lucero, a soft-spoken man of few words, did what he was told when he worked in the mills. He, like many other uranium workers, said if he complained about working conditions, he risked losing his job. One of his tasks, washing uranium off air filters, required him to stand in foot-deep water containing uranium runoff. Doctors, he says, told him radiation exposure had made his left leg brittle; it broke three times and eventually had to be amputated. Now he has a prosthesis, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. Lucero has trouble walking and usually uses a cane or, when he gets too tired, a motorized wheelchair.

“Some days are terrible,” he says. “I can barely get out of bed. I just wonder how I’m gonna die…suffocate or whatever.” He’s only 61.

“It’s haunting us,” says Jerry Sanchez, who worked as both a miner and miller. “If you worked there, you got it coming. If you don’t have it, it’s coming.”

Grants is the quintessential boom town, post-boom. Now, the best jobs are in the prisons. Along its main street, a stretch of Route 66, there are almost as many weed-infested lots as there are occupied buildings. A half-mile stretch contains six payday loan companies—four in one block. A few large neon signs beckon people to buildings that no longer exist. An abandoned gas station has a large sign advertising Marlboro for $1.69 a pack. Lucero says that in its prime, Grants had “lots and lots of people. … The restaurants were full all the time, people [were] buying cars and houses.” But the streets are mostly deserted now. Asked if his friends and family have moved away, he answers, “No. Most of them died because of cancer.”

Eli Massey contributed research to this article.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on February 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer. He has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for 12 years.

Study Finds Unionized Coal Mines Substantially Safer

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Image: Mike Hallnew study shows that miners in unionized coal mines are far less likely to be killed or injured on the job than miners in nonunion operations. The independent study funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that “unionization predicts an 18-33 percent drop in traumatic injuries and a 27-68 percent drop in fatalities.”

The comprehensive study, conducted by Stanford University law professor Alison D. Morantz,  the John A. Wilson Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School, looked at coal mine fatality and injury statistics from 1993 to 2008.

Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts says the study “quantifies the profound differences in safety underground coal miners experience when working union versus working nonunion.”

He points out that recent mining disasters, including the blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 miners last year, the Crandall Canyon (Utah) disaster that killed nine in 2007 and the Sago explosion in 2006 that killed 12 miners, have all been in nonunion mines.

The simple truth is that union mines are safer mines, and this study proves that.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a third-generation coal miner, says he knows “firsthand the vital importance of workers having a voice on the job through their union.”

This study confirms what working people have known all along:  Unions, strong laws, and enforcement are crucial to protecting the lives of our nation’s miners. With all we know today and with all the avenues of prevention available, there is simply no need for even one life to be lost on the job.

Rep. George Miller (R-Calf.) ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee and long-time mine safety advocate says the study shows that

when workers have a voice in the mine through their union, they are safer. In union mines, workers are empowered to point out dangerous conditions to inspectors without fear of retaliation from management. By giving miners the support they need to speak out, unions can save miners’ lives.

The study’s findings suggest that the union safety effect may even have “intensified” since the early 1990s as the UMWA instituted a more comprehensive safety program and expanded training for union safety experts on the local and national levels.

Roberts says that while the study shows union mines are safer, tragedies can still happen, such as the 2001 explosion at the Jim Walters #5 mine in Brookwood, Ala., that killed 13 miners.

We in the UMWA learned hard lessons in that tragedy and others that preceded it. We took steps to provide better protection for our members, and this study demonstrates that those steps are working. We will continue to work as hard as we can to keep the mines where UMWA members work the safest in the world.

Click here for the full report.

This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO blog on May 25, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.

No Pattern To Be Found

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Ravi BakhruDepartment of Labor news releases rarely get the attention they so rightly deserve. But I’m a fan of giving credit where credit is due, so when Assistant Secretary Joseph Main issued this statement, I perked up.

After an investigation by Federal officials, a mine operated by Massey (think Upper Big Branch explosion) was cited for 29 violations in its Tiller No. 1 Mine. The violations ranged from hazardous roof conditions to inadequate ventilation to, wait for it….

Non-permissible electrical equipment with the potential to explode methane gas.

Section 104(d)(1) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act describes a significant and substantial violation as being “of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard.” A violation of this provision essentially means there is a reasonable likelihood that the hazard will result in serious injury or illness. The problem is not just the standard, but in the requisite number of violations that meet the standard to establish a pattern.

Judge David Barbour, who issued an oral ruling (written decision to come) on the matter, found that although he believed all 29 violations had occurred, only 19 of the violations amounted to significant and substantial, 6 less than the 25 needed to establish a pattern. Don’t bother asking if that’s a typo, 25 “significant and substantial” violations are necessary in order to establish a pattern. Establishing a pattern means that any significant and substantial violation found within 90 days thereafter automatically triggers a withdrawal order until the mine has a clean inspection with no S&S violations. In short, establishing a pattern would immensely help those who work in such unsafe conditions by forcing mine operators to clean up or face losing money every day.

“No mine has ever been successfully placed into pattern of violations status.” This is perhaps the most profound statement made with regards to the matter. In 2006, the American public endured the Sago Mine explosion and watched as a single miner emerged with his life. And in April of this year the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 coal miners.

Mining is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we continually disrespect those who risk their lives for our energy by refusing to recognize and fix a broken system of oversight. Employees of these mines should be disgusted, if they aren’t too busy being frightened. The Federal Mine and Health Safety Act is designed to provide regulations and oversight into one of the most hazardous industries known to man. It was not designed to protect the companies who owned the mines, but the average worker who spent a full 8-10 hours in a black hole.

A message needs to be sent to the mine industry: we will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for workers. We may not be able to bring mining from one of the most dangerous jobs in the world to the safest job in the world, but surely we can help those facing such conditions. And we can do that by easing the restrictions on establishing patterns of violations. Doing so would allow regulators to shut mines down when they see violations deemed S&S, and force mine operators to think about safety more than once every explosion.

About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog