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'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

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

He now espouses an "all of the above" energy strategy that includes a role for coal. But after he took office, the EPA provided more weapons to his critics.

It rolled out tough new air pollution standards, some of which had begun under the previous, Republican administration. It vetoed a permit for a massive West Virginia mountaintop removal mine four years after it was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, triggering a federal court battle that's still playing out.

And EPA cracked down on the permitting process for mountaintop mining, a highly efficient and highly destructive form of strip mining unique to Appalachia. The practice of flat-topping mountains, then filling valleys and covering streams with rubble has divided communities and led to multiple confrontations between coal miners and environmental activists.

"I know we need the EPA to keep our laws," says Allen Gibson, a disabled surface miner from Elkhorn City, Ky., who recently helped organize a United for Coal demonstration that stretched across several states. "But instead of telling the companies what to do to fix a problem, they shut the whole thing down."

The EPA, he says, just wants to collect fines.

"But when they do that, the miners lose," Gibson says. "I'm sick of seeing the little guy pay."

During the permitting dispute in 2010, companies crammed miners onto buses and packed public hearings, forging a formidable alliance of management and labor that drowned out the environmentalists.

"They have completely turned the men on their heels," says Nick Mullins, a 33-year-old former miner from Clintwood, Va., who blogs about coal country as The Thoughtful Coal Miner.

"They're paying them better, and they've managed to really win the hearts and minds," he says. Younger miners "didn't see how bad the coal companies were to the men before them. ... They don't know their own history.

"The industry has done this really, really good propaganda," he says. "It's really easy to buy into it, especially when you only hear one side of the story and you're shutting out the other side."

West Virginia University history professor Ken Fones-Wolf says coal companies have also tapped into a proud heritage, heading off any potential opposition miners might have by reminding them they are valuable family providers.

"They feel that being against coal somehow denigrates all the sacrifices that generations of their families have made to the development of this nation."

So they fight for their way of life.

War sells because fear sells.

It's an emotionally charged metaphor that has taken over much of political discourse in America, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of "The Argument Culture."

There have been wars on drugs, wars on women, wars on the middle class. Why not a war on coal?

For people who want to govern, she says, war is about "destroying the opposition so they can get the power back." For media, it's about grabbing the attention of an easily distracted public. The more polarizing the voices, the more entertaining the story.

But such language, she says, contributes nothing to genuine understanding.

Rather, "it has this effect of making people angry, defensive and fearful," Tannen says. "It has a corrosive effect on the human spirit."

Two years ago, the phrase had only begun to creep into a conversation. Today, it's an inescapable, daily drumbeat, dominating not only conversation, but campaign ads and newscasts.

"The idea of taking land in a moving front, there's something there," says Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

"Yes, it's part of a PR campaign," he acknowledges. "But people are pretty jaded and pretty quick to recognize false arguments. The idea that we somehow hoodwinked people in the coalfields is a bit of a stretch.

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