'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20 2012 8:25 a.m. MDT

In a Saturday Oct. 13, 2012 photo, hundreds of supporters signed the American Energy Alliance bus, which has for the past two months traveled around the country, during a United for Coal Rally in Southwest Va. Only a few generations ago, coal miners were literally at war with their employers, spilling and shedding blood on West Virginia's Blair Mountain in a historic battle for union representation and fair treatment. Today, their descendants are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It's fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy _ the federal government _ that has decided that coal is no longer king, or even noble.

Bristol Herald Courier, Allie Robinson, Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Drive through the coalfields of Central Appalachia, and signs of the siege are everywhere.

Highway billboards announce entry to "Obama's No Job Zone," while decals on pickup truck windows show a spikey-haired boy peeing on the president's name.

"Stop the War on Coal," yard signs demand. "Fire Obama."

Only a few generations ago, coal miners were literally at war with their employers, spilling and shedding blood on West Virginia's Blair Mountain in a historic battle for union representation and fair treatment.

Today, their descendants are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It's fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy — the federal government — that has decided that coal is no longer king, or even noble.

Blame the president, the script goes. Blame the Environmental Protection Agency. And now that it's election season, blame all incumbent politicians — even those who have spent their careers in a delicate dance, trying to make mines safer while allowing their operators to prosper.

The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It's easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural "war" than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

War, after all, demands victims. And in this case, it seems, victims demand a war.

Coal helped build America. It powered steam engines on railroads that opened up the West. It fueled homes and factories. It made a lot of people rich and others comfortable. By the early 1900s, more than 700,000 men and boys worked in the nation's mines, many for coal barons offering opportunity and brutality in equal measure.

The miners who resisted exploitation helped shape the principles of modern labor law: Pay by the hour. A week that lasts five days, not seven. Black men and white men paid the same.

Small towns sprang up along railroads and rivers that shipped the coal out. Miners were proud of their work, and still are. Today, though, fewer than 100,000 remain. Machines replaced many, while other jobs vanished as the fat, easily mined seams played out.

To hear industry tell it, those who remain are an endangered species in the crosshairs of overzealous environmental regulators directly responsible for wiping out thousands of jobs.

But in war, casualties are often inflated. The numbers are eye-catching, but details are lost. Too often, the narrative overlooks the fact that when layoffs occur, many workers transfer to other locations. One mine closes, another absorbs.

In reality, U.S. Department of Labor figures show the number of coal jobs nationwide has grown steadily since 2008, with consistent gains in West Virginia and Virginia, and ups and down in Kentucky.

There have been layoffs, to be sure.

Between January and June, coal companies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky cut a combined 3,000 jobs. But mines in the Virginias still employed more people at the end of June than at the same points in 2008 and 2010, while Kentucky was only down by 1,000.

That coal faces challenges is a fact. It always has. During warm winters like the last one, for example, demand falls and stockpiles grow.

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