'War on coal' label obscures battlefield realities

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"It's not just some PR machination," Bissett says. "It is a real, real concern."

In Kentucky, more than 55,000 people now drive vehicles with "Friends of Coal" license plates, a slogan that Bissett helped launch to get people emotionally invested. Instead of seeing the industry as faceless men in suits, they see the pickups next to them at the supermarket parking lot, the tags instantly identifying the like-minded.

So too, with the "war on coal."

Today, you're either friend or foe. Meaningful discussions and middle ground have vanished.

In one of his last major speeches in 2009, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd warned that change was upon coal country. He chastised the industry for "scapegoating and stoking fear," calling it counterproductive.

"To be part of any solution," he said, "one must first acknowledge the problem."

The greatest threats to coal, Byrd warned, come not from regulations "but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting reserves and the declining demand."

Byrd was 91 at the time and revered in his home state of West Virginia. The speech was largely ignored.

But fast-forward three years to another Democrat who's dedicated his political career to the Mountain State.

When Sen. Jay Rockefeller gave a remarkably similar speech in June, deriding the industry for what he said were divisive, fear-mongering tactics, the state's Young Republicans said he'd "gone from out of touch to dangerous."

They even invoked the language of terrorism, suggesting he's "an anti-Mountain State sleeper cell that has lain dormant for 40 years."

Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains — a group that opposes mountaintop removal mining and advocates living "compatibly and sustainably" with the environment — sees such verbal smack-downs as nothing less than a threat to democracy.

"If any politician dares step over the coal line ... you will get hammered back into place, and quickly," says Johnson, of Frost, W.Va. "You just metaphorically crack knuckles and knee caps."

Johnson, 64, once worked the coke ovens for U.S. Steel. He worked for a railroad that moved coal and a power plant that burned it. He wants people to have good livelihoods. He also wants balance, and a government that prevents uncontrolled pollution of earth, air and water.

"The EPA," he says, "is a patsy in the war on coal."

For the past 11 years, Kevin Spears has been a sought-after commodity — a young, healthy Caterpillar mechanic with nine mining job certifications and a willingness to work 60-75 hours a week.

But he lost his job in April when his employer ran out of money to finish reclaiming a strip mine site.

Spears has since applied for 20 positions, with no luck. He used to make $80,000-$110,000 a year, depending on overtime. With only a high school education, he earned more than a friend with a doctorate in psychology.

Today, he supports his girlfriend and their three children on $1,660 a month in unemployment compensation.

"You give up everything. You cut down to the bare essentials — food, water, power," says the 32-year-old from Pikeville, Ky.

Girlfriend LeAndra Conley juggles bills, deciding each week which to pay and which to postpone.

"This whole thing is crushing us," says Conley, who's going through a divorce and won't move her daughters away from their father to Texas, where Spears was offered a $35 an hour job.

"It's not something you think is ever going to happen," she says. "The coal was put here for us to use, and you can't survive without it.

"There's nothing else here, unless you want to work for a phone marketing company. And they only stay until their tax breaks expire, and then they pull out, too."

Mining supported three generations before her, and Conley is certain there's enough coal underground to support three more.

"But Obama said, 'I will bankrupt you,'" she says, "and he is."

The couple still believes life in the coalfields can go back to the way it was. Maybe not overnight, but in time.

As leaves change and a chill settles over the mountains, they pray for two things — a new president and a cold winter that forces people to crank up their furnaces.

"If something doesn't change for this area soon," Spears says, "it's either going to be migration or starvation."

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