Over the weekend, a movement began among bloggers to urge President Obama to visit a mountaintop removal site, and talk with residents who live nearby…
As best I can tell, it started on Daily Kos,Â with a post that started out:
You don’t have to travel to the far side of the world to see protesters being arrested as they attempt to save their families, communities, and future. You don’t have to travel to the far side of the world to find a place where the powerful oppress the poor, and where corruption breeds poverty. You don’t have to travel to the far side of the world to find tragedy being written in people’s lives and in the land. You can get in your car and drive there in less than six hours.
Jeff Biggers has added his own take on The Huffington Post, and West Virginia Blue has joined in the effort with a typically thoughtful post.
Bloggers are certainly doing much to spread the word about important issues like mountaintop removal. And watching many of them essentially taking over the work that those of us in the mainstream media were neglecting, is one of the reasons I started Coal Tattoo back in February.
But frankly, some of the blog coverage of this — like the environmental group-speak on climate change and “green jobs” — greatly oversimplifies the issues involved and the challenges faced.
For example, at Daily Kos, “devilstower” writes:
Some may find it audacious, if not outrageous, to compare what is happening in West Virginia to what is going on in places where people are dying in the streets. It’s true that the recent arrests have been, with a few exceptions, as close to peaceful as such events can be. But while there have been no tragic images recorded on camera phones in West Virginia this past week, people died because of mountaintop removal. Miners have died, but we take that as a matter of course. We accept that flipping on the light switch comes at the price of blood. However, mountaintop removal mining has killed far more than miners. Dozens of people in surrounding communities have died when walls of black sludge plunged down on their homes. Whole families have died, Mr. President, whole towns… so that other Americans can buy their electricity some fraction of a cent more cheaply. And that’s not even considering the lives cut short from contaminated water and fouled air.
OK … what are we talking about here? Buffalo Creek? Aberfan? Both were long before mountaintop removal really started. Maybe Jeremy Davidson, the three-year-old boy killed by a runaway rock from a strip-mine site five years ago in southwestern Virginia? That wasn’t a whole family, and it wasn’t a slurry impoundment.
There are absolutely adverse health costs — and deaths — associated with coal mining. But I don’t understand that need the environmental community and its bloggers have to exaggerate. It seems to me that the science about coal’s damage sounds bad enough, without inflating it.
I enjoy Jeff Biggers’ work, and I thank him very much for frequently citing Coal Tattoo, and taking my work to a broader audience through The Huffington Post. And I am frequently pleased to see Jeff dig into our region’s history in explaining the context for today’s debates. The media doesn’t do enough of that.
But take this weekend’s post urging Obama to visit the region and take a closer look at mountaintop removal … he wrote:
Mountaintop Removal Operators Are NOT Coal Miners, But Mostly Heavy Equipment Operators (Bulldozer and Truck Drivers) Who Could Easily Be Used on Infrastructure Projects, Waterworks, Highway Projects, Genuine Reclamation and Reforestation Projects, and a Lot of Green Jobs Initiatives and Manufacturing Plants (Building Wind Turbines, Solar Panels).
In fact, every mountaintop removal operator job has taken away 2-3 jobs from underground coal miners.
First of all, I know guys who work on mountaintop removal mines. And it is skilled work. And they do mine coal. I don’t understand the need the environmental community has to ridicule them by saying they’re not coal miners. Where does that get anybody?
Second, I don’t know that anyone can really prove that every mountaintop removal operator job has taken away 2-3 jobs from underground miners. The industry is too complex to boil it down to that comparison — not all coal that is mined via large, multiple-seam strip mines would be mined by underground methods. Are surface mines very efficient? Yes. In some cases more efficient that underground mining? Of course. But it’s a bit of a jump from there to what Jeff writes.
Finally, sure, guys who run heavy equipment on a strip mine could also run heavy equipment cleaning up abandoned mines or doing a variety of other projects. In fact, strip-mining got its start when highway contractors were looking for easy ways to make some extra money with their equipment and workforce.
But this idea that a transition for communities in Appalachia that rely on mountaintop removal to “green energy” is going to be easy is wrong and not helpful to the debate.Â Don’t believe me? Read Paul Krugman, “An affordable salvation” —
Yes, limiting emissions would have its costs. As a card-carrying economist, I cringe when â€œgreen economyâ€ enthusiasts insist that protecting the environment would be all gain, no pain.
If West Virginia and Appalachia are going to get aboard this green-energy revolution President Obama and the environmental community keep talking about, it’s going to be hard work. Somebody’s got to start coming up with a concrete and broad-reaching plan.
It doesn’t help do that when our political leaders just so no to change and yes to the same old stuff. But I’m not sure it helps for the other side to overstate their case or make change sound easier than it’s likely to be.
A better approach is the one taken today by Clem Guttata at West Virginia Blue, in a post about Virginia’s efforts at economic diversification. Citing a story by Debra McCown in the Bristol Herald-Courier, Guttato outlines some key points:
1. Diversification provides news jobs as coal mining jobs inevitable disappear.
2. Political independence is necessary for good longer-term planning.
3. Coal mining and other industry can co-exist when resources are specifically allocated and the right structure put in place to make it happen.
But also some key problems, quoting from McCown’s story, he explains:
Kathy Selvage, vice-president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a nonprofit group based in Big Stone Gap, Va., said VCEDA’s work is not truly diversifying the region’s economy; instead, she argues, it is building up the region’s dependence on coal.
“Severance money should not be used to promote coal, and that’s what they’re doing with building a power plant; they’re not promoting diversification,” Selvage said. “When you’re creating a bigger demand for coal, that’s not diversifying your economy.”
Steve Fisher, a retired professor who lives in Emory, Va., and has taught and written extensively about the region, said VCEDA should be encouraging a model different from traditional economic development. He said severance tax revenue should be used to address the overall needs of the community and develop a locally based, sustainable economy.
The $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant under construction in Wise County is touted as a crowning achievement of VCEDA’s work.
And then comments:
Okay, that’s definitely a problem. We don’t need any more coal-fired power plants in this area. That’s not diversification I can believe in. The rest of their projects sound a lot better: call centers, R&D centers, and other office space.
More, quoting again from McCown’s story:
“The cap and trade and climate change issue is vindication for why this group is here,” said Tommy Hudson, president of the Virginia Coal Association and vice-chairman of VCEDA’s executive advisory board.
“We all knew coal would be here for a finite time and we’d have to have the industries to replace it,” Hudson said. “Coal might be here for less time because of climate change, and that makes our work and the work of VCEDA more important.”
OK, I don’t know about the call center part … I can hear coal miners and their families cringing at the thought — those jobs aren’t going to replace $65,000-year-year positions mining coal. They’re just not.
But West Virginia Blue is still hitting at the heart of the problem, and doing so without calling names or making it all sound too easy. That’s the kind of discussion West Virginia and other Appalachian coalfield communities need.
As Jeff Biggers likes to say, onward …