Here’s the latest from the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) today released the following statement on his conversation with President-Elect Donald Trump on securing healthcare for retired miners.
“Today, I spoke with President-Elect Donald Trump and he assured me that he will help fight to secure a permanent health care solution for our retired miners, as guaranteed in the Miners Protection Act. I look forward to working with him, his administration and my colleagues in order to keep America’s promise to our miners and make sure they receive the healthcare they have earned and deserve.”
If you happened to be a regular reader of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, yesterday’s bombshell about black lung disease was enough to frighten you.
In the paper, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that they had confirmed a cluster of the mostly deadly form of the disease — Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF — at a clinic in the Kentucky coalfields. This cluster hadn’t been discovered during the regular NIOSH routines that track black lung, and raised serious questions that the extent of the crisis was far worse than previously explained:
… Cases in this report were not identified through standard coal workers’ pneumoconiosis surveillance, and whether similar clusters of cases exist in other communities is not known. Thus, the actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.
But if you happened to be listening to NPR’s All Things Considered later in the day, you heard the results of a new investigation by the great Howard Berkes:
Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.
The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.
But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.
The reaction from experts in the field — people who have spent their adult lives studying black lung and trying to fight the disease — was nothing short of terrifying.
Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois, Chicago:
I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career.
Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University:
I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health. It’s almost like I’ve failed.
Scott Laney, one of the authors of the NIOSH paper:
The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard. We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.
I guess it’s still early, but the thing I notice is that my email inbox is pretty empty today.
Where are the formal statements from West Virginia political leaders expressing their outrage at this situation? Where are the press releases demanding action?
When anyone releases a new regulation aimed at fighting climate change or trying to curb mountaintop removal pollution, the last place you want to be is between any of our state’s politicians and a microphone or camera. But 1,000 cases of the most severe and deadly form of a disease that has killed 78,000 coal miners since 1969?
Of course, nobody really much campaigns around these parts on a platform of promising to protect the health and safety of coal miners. Those days are gone, especially now that Ken Hechler has passed.
We’re hearing a lot right now from politicians and the political media echo chambers about the middle class, the working class, people who live in middle America. What I can’t understand is how it is that issues like black lung — or any number of a long list of worker health and safety threats — isn’t really talked about like it’s a working class issue.
During this year’s presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton did mention black lung, but only briefly on her website and in context of protecting the program that provides benefits to victims of black lung. She didn’t propose more steps to end this terrible disease. Secretary Clinton did talk a bit about coal miner safety, after former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship showed up at an anti-Clinton rally. She expressed her support for making crimes like Blankenship’s a felony, instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in prison.
If President-elect Donald Trump talked about black lung, I must have missed it. But does anyone really believe a Trump administration will make tougher regulations and enforcement of mine safety and health protections a priority?
When mine safety and health came up during our state’s gubernatorial campaign, it was in the form of a ridiculous attack by the United Mine Workers on Republican Bill Cole and in defense of Democrat Jim Justice, our now-Governor-elect who can’t seem to pay all his mine safety fines on time, and over a bill that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
What people who are truly friends of coal miners ought to do is make sure that all of our elected officials have to sit down and listen to what it sounds like for Mackie Branham — one of the coal miners Berkes interviewed — just trying to breathe.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Late last week, a group of Senate Democrats — led by West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin — took things down to the wire to try to squeeze a long-term fix for the troubled United Mine Workers of American’s health care and pension programs into an emergency government funding bill. They weren’t successful.
But as we reported on Friday night, Manchin is turning his attention on this matter to the future, saying he will push for President -elect Donald Trump to step in and make the UMW retirees a priority once the Republican takes office on Jan. 20.
Other West Virginia leaders are also making it clear they believe this issue needs a long-term solution. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said on Friday:
While it’s disappointing to see only a short term extension of benefits at this time, this issue was way too important to offer false hope and risk our miners walking away with nothing. This CR has now given us a chance to fight another day. I have already spoken to members of House Leadership, incoming Chairman Frelinghuysen and incoming Chairwoman Virginia Foxx and received a commitment to work toward a long-term solution for healthcare and pensions early in the next Congress. It’s time to work together and give our miners peace of mind so they know their benefits won’t be jeopardized by politics.
And Sen. Manchin isn’t the West Virginia political leaders turning to President-elect Trump for help on this. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said late Friday night:
Preserving retirement benefits for our nation’s coal miners is among the most important and pressing items on the congressional agenda
Sen. Capito sent this letter to the President-elect, telling him:
Your recent election has provided hope in West Virginia communities. I look forward to working with you on policies that will help put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production. It is just as important that we act to preserve health care and pension benefits for retirees who have suffered from the down turn in the coal industry. I ask that you work with me and a bipartisan group of my congressional colleagues to enact the Miners Protection Act early in the 115th Congress.”
I’m not aware of any comments that the President-elect made about this issue during the presidential campaign. My request to the transition team for a comment on the matter hasn’t received a response.
That’s the video of last evening’s press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, where Sen. Joe Manchin and other Democrats joined with United Mine Workers of America retirees to continue their push for a longer term legislative fix for the crisis facing tens of thousands of UMWA pensioners.
As we reported online yesterday (and in today’s print edition), the White House weighed in to point out the obvious irony in Republicans who control the congressional agenda not making this issue a bigger priority, while basking in electoral victories that they claim are largely the result of Democrats not caring about this nation’s working class.
Where things stand now is that the four-month extension of health-care benefits is in the “continuing resolution” that is meant to keep the federal government from shutting down late tonight. But that bill has nothing in it about the UMWA pension crisis, and union leaders say the four-month, $45 million in funding for health care benefits for more than 16,000 retirees just isn’t enough.
Now, Manchin and others are pushing for a one-year extension of health benefits, instead of the four-month extension, to be included in the spending bill. Stay tuned …
In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a man takes a picture near a coal mine which has trapped dozens workers in Qitaihe City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)
Earlier this week, the New York Times had a story headlined, “Despite climate change vow, China pushes to dig more coal,” reporting:
America’s uncertain stance toward global warmingunder the coming administration of Donald J. Trump has given China a leading role in the fight against climate change. It has called on the United States to recognize established science and to work with other countries to reduce dependence on dirty fuels like coal and oil.
But there is a problem: Even as it does so, China is scrambling to mine and burn more coal.
A lack of stockpiles and worries about electricity blackouts are spurring Chinese officials to reverse curbs that once helped reduce coal production. Mines are reopening. Miners are being lured back with fatter paychecks.
China’s response to coal scarcity shows how hard it will be to wean the country off coal. That makes it harder for China and the world to meet emissions targets, as Chinese coal is the world’s largest single source of carbon emissions from human activities.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers and workers attend a briefing before conducting a search and rescue operation for workers trapped inside a coal mine in Qitaihe City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)
Interestingly enough, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
A deadly quarry collapse in northeast China this week reflects a surge in dangerous mining activity across the country as coal prices soar, following a government warning that the rally poses increased casualty risks.
The warning, in a report in early November, came as informal data have shown sharp increases in colliery casualties this year, with November the deadliest month so far.
On Tuesday, 22 workers were trapped when a shaft caved in at Qitaihe City Jingyou Coal Mine, a desolate outpost in China’s northeast, state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted rescue workers as saying on Wednesday. The cause wasn’t immediately known, nor was it clear whether any of those trapped had survived.
Last week, a coal-mine fire in neighboring Liaoning province killed 26 miners.
The Work Safety Committee of the State Council, a government agency, also said it would step up surprise inspections, including at night, to counter “illegal practices” at mines that put lives at risk.
“As coal prices go up, mines tend to go beyond the usual safety limits to get at the more dangerous coal, and accidents increase,” saidKeegan Elmer, a researcher for the Hong Kong-based watchdog China Labour Bulletin.
Also this week, Mother Jones had this important story:
As the clock ticks down to the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Obama administration is moving to enact one final measure aimed at cutting coal pollution. According to a spokesperson for the Interior Department, the administration intends to release an update to a decades-old regulation protecting streams from the impacts of mining before Obama leaves office on January 20.
Obama’s climate and environmental policies have largely been defined by a slew of executive actions and new regulations, including limits on carbon and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants; new fuel efficiency standards; and a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands. In recent weeks, the administration has finalized a rule that seeks to limit methane emissions from oil and gas facilities and has placed a chunk of the Arctic off limits to further offshore drilling.
… Derek Teaney, senior attorney with the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, says environmentalists have been waiting years for the rule to be strengthened. It was last updated by the Bush administration in 2008, and critics complained those changes left coal companies with too many loopholes. The Bush-era revisions were challenged in court by environmental groups, and the Interior Department withdrew them in 2014 … The “Obama administration has frittered away its time,” said Teaney.
In this July 17, 2016 file photo, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary, according to a Trump source. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
It was certainly interesting to see Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s statement about President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao as his transportation secretary:
Elaine Chao is an excellent choice for transportation secretary. She is a trail blazer with a proven record of leadership. I enjoyed hosting Elaine in West Virginia during the Bush Administration and hope she will visit again in her role as transportation secretary to see why infrastructure is a top priority for the Mountain State.
When I heard about this particular cabinet pick, my own memories went back to the speech that Secretary Chao gave after 13 coal miners were killed in a massive series of underground explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama, in September 2001.
Of course, President-elect Trump has already nominated Wilbur Ross — who owned the Sago Mine when it blew up and killed 12 miners — to be his commerce secretary. And now Chao. It certainly takes those of us who follow mine safety issues back in time.
It was less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. Speaking at a memorial service in Alabama, Secretary Chao compared the efforts of a dozen miners who died trying to save a coworker to the heroic efforts of those firefighters and police officers who died trying to save 9/11 victims:
In the deepest darkness of these tragedies, we have also seen the best that America has to offer.
Then, Secretary Chao made a promise to the miners’ families:
Whether it be the terrorist attack on September 11 or the mine disaster that claimed thirteen lives this last weekend, we are determined to do everything we possibly can to keep it from ever happening again.
Of course, that wasn’t exactly what Chao did at Labor, or what the Bush administration’s pick to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Dave Lauriski, did either. The Bush administration’s record on mine safety speaks for itself, really … After Jim Walter came Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon … Forty-one coal miners killed in those disastrous — and preventable — incidents alone.
The Bush administration had quietly stopped work on more than a dozen regulations aimed at improving mine safety, promoted budget cuts at MSHA, and encouraged regulators to regulate less and cooperate more with a highly hazardous industry with a history of death and disaster. The results eroded the ability of MSHA to protect the health and safety of miners, and a series of the agency’s own internal reviews reflected lack of resources and political will to do the job Congress had set out for its inspectors. MSHA was left unable to perform its most basic task — the mandated quarterly inspections of all of the nation’s coal mines.
I wonder why Sen. Capito didn’t mention any of that in her statement on Secretary Chao.
West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice speaks to supporters at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., after winning the 2016 West Virginia governors race on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Walter Scriptunas II)
If you missed it in today’s Gazette-Mail, you should click here and check out the brief story about Gov.-elect Jim Justice’s phone call over the weekend with President-elect Donald Trump:
West Virginia governor-elect Jim Justice and President-elect Donald Trump discussed their plans for the future of the coal industry in a 15-minute phone call Saturday. Justice and Trump’s conversation focused on creating coal jobs, tourism, and other job possibilities, according to a press release from Justice.
Here’s the full press release that was issued on Saturday:
Today, President-elect Donald J. Trump called Governor-elect Jim Justice to congratulate him on his victory, and to discuss how to revive West Virginia’s coal industry. The fifteen-minute phone conversation focused primarily on how the two could work together to put coal miners back to work.
The Governor-elect took the call during his Greenbrier East basketball practice. During the conversation, Justice also discussed West Virginia’s tourism and other job possibilities with the President-elect.
“It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work,” said Governor-elect Jim Justice. “President-elect Trump made it clear that he won’t forget about West Virginia when it comes to our nation’s energy policies. I will work closely with the President-elect and his administration on clean coal technology, rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal, and growing West Virginia’s other job opportunities.”
President-elect Trump asked Justice to pass along a message to the people of West Virginia: “We are going to get those coal miners back to work.”
Justice added, “President-elect Trump and I will work great together to bring new opportunities to West Virginia families. He also shared with me how much he cares about the people of West Virginia. Just as President-elect Donald J. Trump reached out to me, I am reaching out to Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to put aside party politics and pull the rope together to turn this state around.”
Let’s look at this part again:
The fifteen-minute phone conversation focused primarily on how the two could work together to put coal miners back to work … “It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work.”
We’ve written before in the Gazette-Mail (see here and here) and in this space (see here, here, here and here) about the aftermath of the presidential election and its implications for the West Virginia coal industry.
There are multiple news reports (see here, here and here, just for example) this evening that President-elect Donald Trump is strongly considering venture capitalist Wilbur Ross as his nominee to be secretary of the Department of Commerce or secretary of the Treasury.
Readers in coal country may recall Ross as the man who really owned the Sago Mine, the International Coal Group operation in Upshur County where 12 coal miners died in a Jan. 2, 2006 explosion.
As we reported in the Gazette at the time:
New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr. has controlled the company that owns the Sago Mine since at least early 2001, according to court records, corporate disclosures and other publicly available documents.
Ross began buying up Anker Coal Group in 1999, with the purchase of a one-fifth stake in the company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
By 2001, Ross had acquired 47 percent of the company – making him by far the largest shareholder, SEC records show.
One commentary this evening in The Nation spells out the development this way:
fter campaigning as a champion of coal miners, Donald Trump is reportedly close to choosing for Commerce Secretary a New York billionaire who owned a West Virginia mine where a dozen miners were killed in 2006. Trump’s favored candidate, Wilbur Ross, also engineered buyouts that cost workers their benefits and their jobs. It’s a striking choice, considering Trump’s promises to improve the lives of coal miners and other working-class Americans.
The possibility that Ross would get a spot in the Trump team isn’t that surprising, given that Ross has been reported for a while to be one of the President-elect’s economic policy advisers.
It is worth pointing out that if he got either the Commerce or Treasury slot, Ross would not be in charge of coal mine safety and health regulation for the Trump administration. Folks who are concerned about those issues would obviously be better off watching to see who President-elect Trump makes Secretary of Labor — and then who exactly is chosen to by Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.
Is something like Sago too much baggage for Ross to become a cabinet secretary? Well, considering some of the other appointments already announced by the transition team, that seems pretty unlikely.
For the record, it’s certainly true that the Sago Mine didn’t exactly have a spotless safety record at the time of the deadly explosion — far from it, according to our stories published at the time (see here, here and here, just for example).
Interestingly, though, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, when it issued the report of its investigation of the Sago Disaster, did not list any of the many violations its inspectors found as having contributed to the deaths. A separate report by an independent team — led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — found plenty of blame to go around, noting failures by regulators and the company to ensure the safety of the Sago workers.
A confirmation hearing for Ross could give the Democrats in the Senate the opportunity to ask a few interesting questions … But then again, it’s not like either presidential candidate or the national media spent much time at all talking about worker safety and health during our nation’s just-completed presidential election.
In this May 5, 2016 photo, coal miners wave signs as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
We’ve been discussing this week the things that President-elect Donald Trump simply isn’t going to be able to do for West Virginia’s coal miners, and the things that President Obama failed to do. So it seemed like a good idea to try to identify some things that the Trump administration could do for coal miners once it takes office in January.
So I asked Sam Petsonk, a mine safety lawyer with the non-profit firm Mountain State Justice, for some ideas. Here’s what he had to say:
America’s companies have often promised us that, if you work for a living, you will be kept safe and healthy at work and you will have some financial security once you retire. Yet, tens of thousands of miners all across the Appalachian Region are losing health insurance after becoming disabled or retired, and others are confronting safety and health challenges on the job if they are still in the workplace. So, the new presidential administration faces serious challenges in assuring that companies keep those promises to coal miners—both for active workers and for retirees whose healthcare benefits are terminated or denied.
Will our companies and government leaders keep the promise to America’s workers and seniors?
This is an essential question for us to be asking. Coal miners have educated me about several increasingly important challenges as we have advocated together on workers’ and retirees’ rights over the past decade. Here are some of those challenges, and some steps that the new administration could take to address them.
First, coal companies are laying off underground maintenance crews as a way to save money during a downturn in the market. Failing to provide basic levels of safe staffing at underground mines can cause major ventilation problems and other life-threatening hazards. When operators fail to employ ‘outby’ maintenance crews or additional workers to hang ventilation curtains, the remaining workers often find that they do not have enough time to perform all the necessary work to keep the mine safe and productive. We have long relied upon these maintenance crews to keep our mines safe and healthful. Cutbacks on maintenance can cause a mine to lose control of its ventilation system, or to fail to identify and to clean up roof falls and dust accumulations. It takes a good bit of time to maintain the ventilation systems (repairing or plastering stoppings to prevent air leakage, and maintaining other ventilation controls, etc.). It takes more time to conduct comprehensive preshift examinations and other safety-sensitive tasks.
In many mines, the firebosses or preshift examiners cannot be relied upon to accomplish all of their firebossing tasks as well as to make up for non-existent outby maintenance crews. There is not enough time, and critical tasks will be short-changed. These are serious concerns because inadequate maintenance of ventilation structures can cause a lethal mixture of methane gas and coal dust—especially in sensitive areas like dead-air zones and methane mixing chambers. These concerns are also especially acute on a so-called “supersection” where there are two continuous mining machines on a single stream or “split” of air. In that setting, twice as much dust is generated and the need for full staffing is therefore greater.
If the market picks up again, perhaps companies will start hiring back those maintenance crews and necessary helpers on supersections. But in the meantime, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) can take important steps to assure adequate maintenance. For instance, coal mine operators are currently required to maintain roof control and ventilation plans for their mines. MSHA has the power to mandate that the roof control and ventilation plans provide for more frequent maintenance of ‘outby’ areas, so that stoppings are regularly plastered, spillages and falls are promptly cleaned up, and maintenance crews cannot be laid off. As for supersections, MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main has stated that best practices for staffing a supersection include a total of 16 miners: 1 foreman; 2 continuous miner operators; 2 continuous miner helpers that are also responsible for ventilation curtains; 4 shuttle car operators; 2 scoop operators; 4 roof bolter operators and 1 mechanic. This does not include outby maintenance crews, such as stopping builders or supply haulage positions (i.e., miners who are not regularly assigned to work at the mine face). MSHA can also work with the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training to include similar requirements in the comprehensive safety plans that West Virginia coal operators are required to maintain.
Second, black lung has been on the rise for years, and MSHA should continue addressing that problem by reducing coal miners’ exposure to all forms of breathable coal mine dust (both coal and silica dust)—including by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners to work downwind from the active cutting of coal. The promise to end the advanced forms of black lung disease has long been a basic tenet of America’s law and policy for coal miners. But miners report that companies routinely force roof bolt crews to spend hours each night drilling into the mine roof while downwind from active mining machines, in flagrant and intentional disregard of the lethal dust exposure for those downwind miners. It is no surprise that we have a new surge in advanced black lung disease in the twenty-first century when we allow coal operators to treat miners in this fashion.
Every miner (non-union and union alike) has the right to complain to management about working in dusty conditions downwind from active mining machines in what is known as “return air.” A growing number of miners are exercising that right, and are outright refusing to work in such conditions. I routinely speak with and represent young men in their thirties or forties who have already worked as roof bolters for over fifteen years in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Several of them have banded together to refuse to operate their roof bolt machines in return air at such mines as the Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County, and others. These miners are demonstrating that it is possible to run good coal and not expose miners to toxic levels of dust.
Despite the courageous efforts of a growing number of miners who are banding together and refusing to bolt in return air, additional action by MSHA is necessary in order to prevent companies from pressuring miners to resume working in return air. MSHA can stop this practice altogether by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners (roof bolters, buggy men, or anyone) to work downwind while a machine is actively cutting coal on a section. No miner should have to stand for hours just a few feet from a continuous mining machine, breathing unfathomable amounts of highly-toxic coal and silica dust. MSHA has the power to outlaw that type of work practice.
Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Joe Main, MSHA has taken some very important first steps to address the issue of black lung, such as reducing the permissible exposure limit and mandating better dust monitors. MSHA recently introduced a new generation of dust control technology via the continuous personal dust monitors. These new dust monitors are empowering miners with real-time information about dust exposure. Dust control is a major challenge nationwide, but especially in Central Appalachia, where miners are often forced to work in highly-toxic sandstone and silica dust, mixed with coal dust, in order to access the thin-seam coal reserves that are still left over for mining in this region. The new dust monitors are helping miners to avoid toxic dust exposures that can cause early onset of black lung in young miners. But the monitors alone may not halt the surge of black lung if the new administration does not take additional steps to strengthen enforcement and eliminate acute dust exposure in “return air” downwind from active mining.
President Barack Obama listens to questions during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Yesterday’s post, “President-elect Trump’s coal con,” got a fair amount of attention and it is indeed a topic that deserves to be talked about by everybody who cares about the coalfields and about our state’s politics.
But it’s worth remembering that the political climate at any place at any particular time doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. The climate is created, by things that human beings (like candidates, party chairs, the media, votes) can control and by things they can’t control.
In West Virginia, the political climate didn’t just suddenly become anti-Obama and anti-EPA to the extent that it has become so. It took years of hard work by Republican activists, career campaign consultants, and coal industry public relations people. The truth is, though, that many Democrats — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin, haven’t forgotten that awful ad where you shot the cap-and-trade bill — gave the industry and the Republicans plenty of help along the way.
Still, if you’re one of those West Virginia Democrats who wants to blame various election results on those awful people from the national party you belong to, it is worth trying to think about what really you should be focused on in that regard. Really, what that all goes back to is a little statement buried in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release way, way back in 2009. At the time, EPA was announcing a bit of a crackdown (it was never really much of a crackdown) on mountaintop removal coal-mining. Here’s what it said:
Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.
Sounds great, right? The problem is, the Obama administration didn’t really get moving with a broad and detailed plan for any of that sort of thing until about six years later — in 2015, President Obama’s next-to-last-year in office. In 2015 and again this year, the White House included a major coalfield aid package in its budget proposal to Congress.
We had another story over the weekend examining what the outcome of last week’s presidential election might mean for West Virginia’s coal industry, and more importantly for the coalfield communities that are hurting in the wake of mining’s inevitable decline.
At the same time, there were remarkable reports out of both of the major papers in Kentucky that are worth reading.
First, here’s the Courier-Journal:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hedged on Friday about when and if Republicans would be able to bring coal mining jobs to Kentucky, saying that is a “private sector activity.”
“We are going to be presenting to the president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said. “Whether that immediately brings business back, that’s hard to tell because this is a private sector activity.”
And there’s this even more remarkable line from the Herald-Leader:
The interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association was more direct about the future of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.
“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”
So, basically, all those politicians and industry officials and career campaign consultants who spent most of the campaign trying to convince the hard-working people of the coalfields that another boom would be just around the corner … Well, I guess we were supposed to take them seriously, but not literally.
President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Well, this happened:
Donald John Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday in a stunning culmination of an explosive, populist and polarizing campaign that took relentless aim at the institutions and long-held ideals of American democracy.
The surprise outcome, defying late polls that showed Hillary Clinton with a modest but persistent edge, threatened convulsions throughout the country and the world, where skeptics had watched with alarm as Mr. Trump’s unvarnished overtures to disillusioned voters took hold.
The triumph for Mr. Trump, 70, a real estate developer-turned-reality television star with no government experience, was a powerful rejection of the establishment forces that had assembled against him, from the world of business to government, and the consensus they had forged on everything from trade to immigration.
The results amounted to a repudiation, not only of Mrs. Clinton, but of President Obama, whose legacy is suddenly imperiled. And it was a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.
It seems like a long time since Monday evening, when I was flipping around on the television and landed on C-Span, which was showing Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the big Clinton campaign rally at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. One of the songs he did was “Long Walk Home,” which goes something like this:
In town I passed Sal’s grocery, barbershop on South Street
I looked in their faces, they were all rank strangers to me
Hey Veteran’s Hall high upon the hill stood silent and alone
The diner was shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said “gone”
It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home
Here in West Virginia, the state race was called for Trump literally just moments after the polls closed last evening. Trump’s victory here has long been a foregone conclusion. But looking back now not just at the ultimate result in the Electoral College, but more specifically at the votes of my fellow West Virginians, that song strikes a chord.
The West Virginia that embraces so much fear and hatred isn’t the one I grew up in and continue to try to make a life in and help, in some small way, to improve. I just don’t recognize it. Maybe my heart won’t let me. Maybe I’m blind. I suspect that many West Virginians, including some Republicans, who didn’t vote for Trump feel the same way.
But, I’m also certain that part of the reason that so many West Virginians threw in with Trump is that the West Virginia that’s in front of their eyes doesn’t necessarily look that familiar to them — and really, the country may not look or feel that familiar to them anymore, either. Questions about the nation’s growing diversity and West Virginia’s general lack of diversity, and how that affects our voting patterns, are a bit far afield for this blog, but there’s also something here that relates to our complex relationship with the coal industry that we should all try to think about.
The struggles and pain for families in somewhat isolated pockets of our state where coal has long been the lifeblood — good paying jobs for generations who might not have gone to college, but are hardworking, smart and resilient — is very real. Thousands of coal jobs have disappeared in just a few short years. And most experts provide little if any hope that they’re coming back, despite an expected slight uptick in the met coal market.
What’s emerged though, is an identity politics that’s driven by the coal industry narrative that goes deeper than the much-discussed and highly successful campaign to convince people that the coal industry’s troubles are almost entirely caused by President Obama and his EPA, that Hillary Clinton would continue those policies, and that another president — maybe Donald Trump — would put a stop to that, bringing another huge coal boom that would rescue mining communities.
This deeper narrative, perpetrated by career campaign consultants, isn’t just that coal is West Virginia. It’s that coal is all there is to West Virginia. Too many of us have become convinced not just that coal has been a way of life here for many families and communities, but that it’s the only possible way of life for those same families and communities. This narrative has been used to stoke fear — fear of the future and of the unknown, fear of outsiders and of the entire outside world, fear of a president with a funny name who doesn’t look like most of us, and fear of a “nasty woman” we already weren’t sure we trusted.
Eighteen months ago, when billionaire Jim Justice announced his run for governor, I wrote a blog post called “Coalfield Justice: West Virginia needs more than love.” Among other things, I wrote:
Perhaps most importantly, it seems impossible to imagine that a gubernatorial election that features Jim Justice as a candidate will involve the sort of real discussion about coal’s past and our future that West Virginians so desperately need …
At this rate, we’re going to end up with another election that features nonsensical advertising campaigns over which candidate is more pro-coal and more anti-EPA. If the career campaign consultants have their way, every 2016 race in West Virginia will again be about President Obama, who won’t be on the ballot.
For the most part, the fall campaign played out this way. There were some minor bright spots during the May primary, when rival Democrats Jeff Kessler and Booth Goodwin tried to steer the discussion toward the future, rather than some imagined future that is wrapped up in mostly holding onto the past. But we’ve again managed to get through an election cycle by letting the coal industry and its political friends get away with making the campaign about who will do more to save an industry that is in major decline, with little hope of a significant rebound, and with precious little of the discussion focused on how to move forward with hope, not fear.
In this Monday, Oct. 31, 2016 photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, rescuers work at Jinshangou Coal Mine in Chongqing, southwest China. Rescuers worked through the night at the privately owned Jinshangou mine where the explosion occurred before noon Monday, Xinhua News Agency reported. (Tang Yi/Xinhua via AP)
Regulators found several safety violations in a coal mine in western China where 33 people died this week after being trapped underground in a gas explosion.
China’s State Administration of Work Safety said Wednesday the mine in the municipality of Chongqing was using outdated equipment and miners were sent more than 100 meters (328 feet) beyond the approved drilling area, causing gas to accumulate.
We’ve talked before on this blog about how workplace disasters in far-away places often make us get up on our high horse about how much
more advanced we are in the United States, and how that sort of cockiness may not be the best approach for encouraging safety and health in our domestic mining industry.
As if to remind us of that, the great Chris Hamby at BuzzFeed had this report on Wednesday:
One of America’s most renowned medical centers — The Johns Hopkins Hospital — intentionally defrauded hundreds of sick coal miners out of compensation and health benefits while pocketing large sums from coal companies, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the families of two coal miners who died of black lung disease.
The lawsuit, which also targets a longtime Hopkins doctor, draws heavily from revelations in an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity, in partnership with ABC News, about a unit of radiologists who for decades provided coal companies with readings of miners’ X-rays. Those readings almost always said the miner didn’t have black lung, helping the companies avoid paying benefits under a program administered by the federal government.
… The investigative report found that the longtime leader of the unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, had read X-rays in more than 1,500 cases but never once found a case of severe black lung. Other doctors, looking at the same films, found evidence of the disease hundreds of times. Wheeler’s credentials and longtime affiliation with Johns Hopkins often trumped those of the other doctors, however, and administrative judges credited his reports to deny more than 800 claims … The investigation found that in more than 100 cases, biopsies or autopsies proved Wheeler wrong.
I think I’ve gotten two of these anti-Jim Justice fliers so far, both mailed to the house by the Republican Governors Association’s PAC.
“Billionaire Jim Justice Polluted Our Environment,” they scream, before listing environmental violations at Justice’s mining operations and noting a lawsuit against the Democratic gubernatorial candidate by the Sierra Club.
This is how silly this election is — certainly in West Virginia, but also elsewhere in the coalfields and beyond.
It’s true that Justice’s company has had some run-ins with government regulators over his compliance with environmental rules — and not just at his coal mines. Justice had some problems not so long ago with dam construction at one of his resorts. And of course more recently, there was a pretty significant penalty to resolve water quality violations cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
As we’ve written here before, though, these kinds of violations are — unfortunately — pretty routine in the coal industry, where violations of environmental standards and worker health and safety rules are, really, part of the basic business plan. Most of the major coal producers in the state have entered into similar deals with EPA. The only difference with this one (other than it involving a gubernatorial candidate’s company) is that the EPA required some specific financial commitments, given … well, probably given the well-documented pattern of Justice not to pay his bills.
Since the local Republicans so desperately want every single election this cycle to be about President Obama and the EPA, and their supposed effort to eliminate the coal industry, shouldn’t the GOP be lining up with Jim Justice here, to protest the outrageous overreach of those bureaucrats who want the Clean Water Act enforced, and don’t think the coal industry should be above the law?
We’ve got a story online from Sunday’s Gazette-Mail that previews this week’s oral argument on former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s appeal of his criminal conviction. We’ve also got a handy sidebar that explains the issues in the appeal and provides some information about how the process works and what might come next in the case.
For those who want to dive in more, here’s a searchable collection of the court filings in Blankenship’s appeal and some related documents:
(AP Photo/Evan Agostini for The Greenbrier Resort, File)
There’s been a flurry of response from both Jim Justice and his supporters to the blockbuster story by NPR (along with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Ohio Valley ReSource) about Justice’s $15 million in unpaid taxes and fines. Some supporters, like the United Mine Workers, are rushing to defend Justice, and others — like the state Democratic Party — are trying to deflect attention with one of those “I know you are, but what am I” stories the career campaign consultants want our elections to be all about.
Justice himself stooped to a silly attack on respected NPR reporter Howard Berkes, saying that Berkes was “twisting things” and trying to make Justice out to be a bad guy.
Having watched the national media kick our butts on this story, pulling together all of the pieces in a way that they hadn’t been before, it seemed like the least we could do was to do a little bit of fact-checking on the response to the NPR story. So here is a little question-and-answer session I did via email with Howard Berkes:
Coal Tattoo: In a statement issued yesterday, the United Mine Workers of America defended Jim Justice, saying that Mr. Justice’s “fines are, in fact, being paid right now.” What can you say from your reporting about that? To what extent are the MSHA fines “being paid right now”?
Berkes: It is true that Justice’s mining companies are making $75,000 a month in payments as stipulated in a payment plan with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). That payment plan was signed on December 30,2015, and covers $1,546,363.04 in delinquent mine safety penalties that are under MSHA’s jurisdiction (payment plan documents [posted here]) in the form provided by MSHA in response to a FOIA request). Another $1,751,107 in delinquent mine safety penalties (including interest and fees) is at the Treasury Department for collection and is not covered by a payment plan, according to a detailed list of delinquencies as of 7/31/2016 and provided to NPR in response to a FOIA request. Some of the delinquent penalties at the Treasury Department have been referred to the Department of Justice for possible litigation and others are pending referral to DOJ.
Coal Tattoo: Exactly how far overdue are these penalties, generally speaking? Are any of them penalties that are still being contested, or appealed, by the Justice companies involved?
Berkes: All of the penalties in our analysis are officially final. They have been through any challenges and appeals. None are contested. We eliminated from our analysis any delinquent penalties listed by MSHA as “On Hold” because they were recalled for further review. The oldest penalties go back to August, 2009, and as we reported, there were $1,381,408 in newly delinquent penalties since January of 2014, when we first engaged with Justice and his mining companies, who said the delinquent penalties would be paid.
Coal Tattoo: What can you tell use from your reporting about the extent to which the total overdue debts you reported on — some $15 million — were for taxes or other things that are not MSHA fines and therefore not part of any payment plans with the federal government?
Berkes: Only $1,546,363.04 in mine safety penalties is covered by a payment plan with the federal government. There are county payment plans for $4,555,297.29 in delinquent county taxes in Kentucky. Some of those plans were in default until the last few weeks. But as of last week, the Justice companies are making payment on all payment plans in Kentucky. We documented one county payment plan in Virginia in Tazewell County. That payment plan began after the county sheriff seized mining equipment. We also documented one county payment plan in Alabama.
We found no evidence of payment plans, and the Justice companies did not assert the existence of payment plans, for $3,107,854.95 in federal tax liens in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, and $3,941,541.59 in state tax liens in South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Our spreadsheet summarizing Justice company debts by states and counties [is posted here].
Coal Tattoo: Are you aware of any movement since the publication of your story toward paying these other overdue debts? And have Justice, his companies or his campaign questioned the accuracy of anything you reported?
Berkes: We have been in contact with the Justice companies and campaigns about our findings since early August, sharing our data and offering an opportunity to dispute the data and comment. In our first contact, Justice mining executives noted that some of the delinquent penalties listed by MSHA as unpaid in the data provided to us were listed as paid in MSHA’s Mine Data Retrieval System (MDRS). We then reviewed every delinquent penalty and also confirmed with MSHA the status of penalties listed in the MDRS. We then removed from our analysis and findings the penalties listed as paid in the MDRS. Justice COO Tom Lusk has provided updates on payment plans. We documented the revival of dormant payment plans, some of which occurred after county attorneys threatened lawsuits and after we contacted Lusk. Some counties confirmed that they were discussing payment plans before we contacted Lusk. There’s no question that Lusk was pursuing some of these payment plans, and some existed, before we contacted the Justice companies. We’re not aware of any payments since our story was published last week.
Coal Tattoo: Justice indicated in Tuesday night’s debate that he doesn’t believe that not paying fines or taxes on time is part of any buiness plan or practice or pattern of his. But didn’t your reporting describe a pattern in which such debts weren’t paid, until attention was brought — either by the press or a lawsuit — over one particular set of bills, and those bills would then be paid, while perhaps others not brought to public attention continued to go unpaid or even got larger?
Berkes: We found coincidental timing of some payments and payment plans. When the Gazette-Mail reported nearly $4 million in delinquent county taxes in West Virginia in April, most were completely paid-off in two weeks. When the county sheriff in Tazewell County, Virginia, seized mining equipment at a Justice mine in March, a payment plan began. When the county attorney in Harlan County, Kentucky, filed suit in October, a payment plan followed. When the county attorney in Knott County, Kentucky, sued and filed two motions for summary judgement in August and September, a payment plan followed. When NPR reported delinquent mine safety penalties in 2014, a payment plan followed (though two years later). In Pike County, Kentucky, we were told, a Justice mining company was not responsive until after NPR told Justice representatives that we were going to report delinquent taxes.
We also found that some Kentucky county payment plans defaulted in this same time frame. Payments suddenly stopped, county officials told us, in January, April and May, and recently resumed.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Despite some of the recent talk about coal and energy issues in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, it seems that the United Mine Workers of America union’s political arm is going to stay out of the fray.
UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told me this morning that an endorsement of either candidate is “highly unlikely” at this point.
So far, Smith said, no state UMWA political councils have recommended such an endorsement to the union’s national political council, which is made up of members of the UMWA International Executive Board. That national council is the body that would vote on any presidential endorsement, Smith said.
In the UMWA’s political work, the endorsement process starts with area political councils, which make recommendations to state councils on state races. State councils then make recommendations to the national council for federal races. But Smith noted that all of the state council meetings for this election have already occurred. There’s still a chance of some movement that would result in a national council vote, but again, Smith said that is “highly unlikely.”
Readers may recall that, after endorsing Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, the mine workers did not make a presidential endorsement in 2012. And as we discussed four years ago, a non-endorsement isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for the UMWA.
This time around, the much-misconstrued comments from Secretary Clinton about mining jobs and the future of coal country — among other issues — certainly has generated significant support among active UMWA members for Mr. Trump. But remember that union political councils also include retired UMWA members, many of whom may be focused on the union’s troubled pension and health-care benefit plans — an issue that Secretary Clinton has talked repeatedly about, but Trump has ignored.
Search this blog
- Gov. Tomblin: West Virginia’s coal industry ‘likely won’t ever return to the levels that we once saw’
- Manchin receives pension ‘assurance’ from Trump
- More alarms on devastating resurgence of black lung disease, but where’s the political outrage?
- Will President-elect Trump help retired coal miners?
- Push continues for UMWA benefits fix
- Abandoned mines
- Air pollution
- Alternative energy
- Black lung
- Blankenship Trial
- Blog business
- Climate policy
- Climate science
- Coal ash
- Coal business
- Coal pollution
- Corporate welfare
- Green jobs
- International news
- Legal actions
- Media coverage
- Mine Safety
- Mountaintop Removal
- Peak coal
- Power lines
- Protest actions
- Slurry impoundments
- Strip mine science
- Upcoming events
- Upper Big Branch Disaster
- Water pollution
- Workplace safety