Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘coal miners’

As the coal industry collapses, miners face losing their pensions

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Image result for molly taftJune, the Trump administration unveiled one of its largest environmental rollbacks to date: replacing the Obama administration’s  rule, which regulated carbon pollution from power plants. The rule had been a favorite target of President Donald Trump as he stumped on the campaign trail and held presidential rallies. “We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal and we’re putting our coal miners back to work,” he said during a  in West Virginia last November.

But Trump’s promises to save coal have yet come to pass — and miners are becoming increasingly worried for their future.

This week, coal miners from across the country will visit Capitol Hill to demand that Congress protect their pension plans. The visit comes amid grim news for the industry.  have declared bankruptcy since October, with   going under in this month alone.

Coal workers, in turn, are pushing Congress to pass the , which would transfer federal funds into the troubled . But even if lawmakers figure out a solution for the problems plaguing the pension plan, it will be just the beginning of solving a larger issue. Thousands of retirees across the country are on the brink of losing healthcare and security in various pension and retirement plans as the industry takes a nosedive.

The pension plan dates to 1946, when the federal government  with the miners that required coal companies to provide pensions and health care for retired miners. In exchange, miners agreed to end a nationwide strike. The current formation of the fund was negotiated in 1974.

The fund guarantees  for working a dangerous job that often can take a serious toll on their health. But miners are now worried that guarantee won’t last. The fund lost  in the 2008 recession and took additional hits over the next few years after several coal companies went bankrupt. Since January, when Mission Coal went , only one of the original companies in the 1974 pension fund plan, , has been paying dues into the fund.

If lawmakers don’t stabilize the pension fund, the union expects nearly 100,000 miners will lose pensions and health care benefits around 2022. But if Murray Energy collapses, that could happen much sooner.

“If [Murray Energy] were to file bankruptcy — and a lot of coal companies are filing bankruptcy these days — the fund would collapse within a matter of six months,” said Phil Smith, director of communications and governmental affairs at UMWA. The 2022 expiration date, Smith explained, assumes no more coal bankruptcies over the next two years — an optimistic scenario. “We don’t believe we have that much time to wait,” Smith said.

Even if lawmakers shore up the UMWA pension plan, that will only cover some miners. Even more who belong to other pension plans negotiated by the union risk losing health care and retirement benefits as the industry plummets.

For nearly a year, miners at s mines in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana have faced an uncertain future as the company, which does not contribute to the UMWA fund but does pay into a pension plan for its workers, goes through bankruptcy proceedings. In March, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the company  to freeze its current pension plan as it negotiated a contract with a buyer.

Companies often shed pension plans, health care benefits, and union contracts during bankruptcies, as they restructure and attempt to find new buyers. Bankruptcies also provide coal companies the opportunity to duck out of other financial liabilities, including environmental . This can free up money for costly executive payouts.

Bankruptcy filings show that Westmoreland  $10.2 million to executives in severance payments, salary bumps and bonuses a year before the bankruptcy, and short-shifted miners are calling foul.

“Coal miners, both underground and surface miners, are the hardest working people in America, and their safety and working conditions are the most dangerous in this country, with black lung, silicosis, and other breathing disorders, and from a safety standpoint, falling roofs, rocks, slips, falls, equipment mishaps, and working around beltlines, pulleys and other pinch points,” retired miner Jim Villos wrote in a  sent to the bankruptcy judge. “We, the miners, kept our end of the deal and Westmoreland needs to keep their promise, too!”

Over the past few years, coal companies in the West have largely  while Appalachian firms struggled, partially because western mines produce cleaner-burning coal that can be more easily mined. But now, even the western mines aren’t safe. And as Wyoming author Bob LeResche pointed out in a  in WyoFile, as the industry continues to collapse, companies are using bankruptcy proceedings to eke out money for those at the top while leaving miners without a safety net.

After the bankruptcy of a big coal company, LeResche wrote, those who move in to clean up the damage “will bleed the mines’ remaining assets and escape liabilities to workers, communities and the environment; liabilities that have accrued over decades. They tend to be litigious, and are not strangers to the world of serial bankruptcies and corporate manipulation. Their environmental records are seldom clean. These are not the operators and corporate neighbors one would normally invite into the neighborhood.”

As the 2020 election looms and conversation continues around the Green New Deal, the UMWA has invited presidential candidates to visit coal mines, where they will speak to  about their futures. What remains to be seen is how miners will cope with the death of their industry.

“The problem is bankruptcy laws are made for corporations,” UMWA’s Mike Dalpiaz  in March. “They’re made by rich guys in Congress for rich guys that own corporations.”

Molly Taft writes for , a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her .

This article was originally published by Think Progress on July 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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.

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.

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.

Coal Communities Ask Trump To Honor His Promises

Friday, December 16th, 2016

Coal miners, their communities and Faith groups are calling on President-presumed-Elect Donald Trump to honor his campaign promise to help coal workers. In an “Open Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump from coal miners,” hundreds of coal miners from Appalachia to Western coal lands asked for help for coal communities across the country.

They want Trump to take action to make sure coal CEOs and companies keep promises to restore the landscape and local environments by “reclaiming” the old mines, which would mean jobs in coal communities. They also asked Trump to protect the pension and health benefits they were promised. The companies and CEOs made millions from the mines and should not be allowed leave behind a devastated environment and ruined communities.

The letter was organized by Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a network of Faith groups and worker centers working “to mobilize people of faith and work advocates in support of economic justice and worker rights at the local, state and national levels.” It asks Trump to stop coal CEOs and companies from abandoning their responsibility to clean up old mines.

The letters asks Trump to, “Ensure federal and state governments use every legal option to prevent coal companies from shirking their commitment to reclaim and repair the public lands mined for private profit.”

Please visit the website Help Coal Workers to read stories from coal workers, read the letter and sign a petition asking Trump to honor his promises.

For example, one of those stories:

“I worked in the mines for 25 years until I had an accident and could not work anymore,” said Charles E. Boyd of McCalla, Alabama. “I am on disability due to my work injury. I also have black lung. My pension and health benefits was promised to coal miners by our government. Please keep the promise.”

The Open Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump from coal miners:

Dear Mr. President-Elect Trump,

Dear Congressman Zinke, nominee for Secretary of the Department of the Interior,

Anybody who works on American coal mines knows that the industry is rapidly changing. Mines are closing, coal companies are declaring bankruptcy, and many of us are losing our jobs and our livelihoods. For some of us, these are the only jobs that we’ve ever known – once assured of a lifelong and stable career with good pay and a community in which to raise a family. No more.

We all have strong opinions about why our industry is suffering: which politicians or whose agenda is to blame. Regardless of politics, the bottom line is that we need to take care of our brothers and sisters who are facing uncertain times.

That means ensuring that coal companies follow through on their commitments to coal miners across the country. As you take action to revitalize the coal industry, we urge you and Congressman Zinke to do everything possible to hold true to your promise on the campaign trail that you are beholden to “no special interest. My only interest is you, the American people.”

Here’s how the Trump Administration can be a champion for coal mining communities in crisis:

Ensure federal and state governments use every legal option to prevent coal companies from shirking their commitment to reclaim and repair the public lands mined for private profit.

Through bankruptcy proceedings, we have learned that several companies are working to drastically reduce their financial and legal responsibility to reclaim mined land.

Any new or expanded coal leasing should be in concert with the strongest possible assurances that coal companies will honor their obligations to communities to create jobs by reclaiming and rehabilitating mined land.

Work with Congress to increase revenue and funding for communities as well as programs that support local economies.

There are a number of pieces of legislation on the table in Congress that would invest in coal communities, fund reclamation and economic revitalization projects, and protect promised benefits to coal miners and their families.

We urge you to work with Congress to pass these laws if they do not move forward before your inauguration

We, the undersigned coal miners and concerned individuals from across the country, demand action that will bring relief to coal communities.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on December 15, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

 

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts Says Turkey Mine Disaster is a 'Punch in the Gut' for All Coal Miners

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Jackie TortoraUnited Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement Thursday:

“The horrific news coming from the coal mine near Soma, Turkey where nearly 300 miners have been killed and scores more are missing is a punch in the gut for every coal miner everywhere in the world. The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member and our families are with the families of the miners who lost their lives, and we sincerely hope that rescue efforts are possible and successful for those who remain trapped.

“The magnitude of this tragedy is appalling. I see where the media is calling this an industrial ‘accident,’ but a disaster on this scale is no accident. This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off. There could not have been any regulatory enforcement or company oversight of what went on in that mine.

“It has been nearly a century since we have seen disasters on this scale in the United States or Canada. Through strong laws and regulations, we have been able to develop workplace protections that keep our miners safe from the kinds of conditions that must have existed in that Turkish mine.

“What we have done here isn’t magical. It can be and has been applied elsewhere in the world. We stand ready to work with the Turkish miners and their government to help develop safety and health procedures that can help put an end to the possibility of these sorts of massive disasters in the future.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 16, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog