Coal Tattoo

Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, addresses a labor rally of Friday, April 1, 2011 in Waynesburg, Pa.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Say what you want about my friend United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, but you pretty much always know where he stands.

Except when he writes op-eds like the one in today’s Gazette, in which he makes like a Chamber of Commerce leader and slams the Obama administration’s effort to keep reducing deadly pollution from coal-fired power plants:

Just as our economy is beginning to climb out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a variety of new rules that will inevitably lead to large-scale unemployment and massive rate hikes over the next several years.

… Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the utility, coal and transportation sectors. Hundreds of communities will suffer as their tax bases shrink with the closure of nearby utility plants. Industrial states that were hit hard by the recession and still suffering from high unemployment will take another, needless hit.

Now, there are folks in the regional and environmental community who will immediately jump on this as typical stuff from the UMWA. These folks remain increasingly bitter that Cecil Roberts won’t join their fight to stop all mountaintop removal (or maybe all surface coal-mining).

That wouldn’t be fair.

Maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic. All of the publicity about the upcoming march to urge protection of Blair Mountain reminds me of when I met Cecil, more than 20 years ago.

It was the summer of 1989. Cecil was vice president of the union, leading its strike against Pittston, fighting for the health-care benefits of UMWA retirees and widows. It was a young intern at the Gazette, and somebody thought it was a good idea to let me cover the strike (one joke in the newsroom that summer was about how, if there were any trouble on the picket lines, I wasn’t on the company’s health-care plan). UMW leaders were re-enacting the march to Blair Mountain to draw attention to their fight with Pittston (subscription required).

One thing I learned that summer was how so many UMWA fights were not really about the working miners who were doing the fighting, but about either protecting the union’s retirees or trying to ensure a better life for their kids.

Dave Thearle, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, waves an American Flag during a labor rally in Waynesburg, Pa., Friday, April 1, 2011.

In fact, the union has a long and grand tradition of standing up for progressive movements in Appalachia and beyond, working to improve the lives of folks in the coalfields — doing things beyond just protecting the jobs of active, working UMWA miners.

That’s why, despite what folks in the environmental community might say in response to an op-ed like this one, there’s just no reason to think that Cecil Roberts thinks it’s acceptable for coal pollution to cause heart attacks, premature deaths or childhood asthma. Cecil doesn’t find those things any more acceptable than he does the 10,000 deaths of coal miners over the last decade from black lung disease.

But from today’s op-ed piece, it’s kind of hard to tell what Cecil is and isn’t advocating. Let me explain what I mean.

At one point, Cecil acknowledges that the Clean Air Act mandates for reductions in these toxic air pollutants are decades-old, and have never really been implemented or enforced:

The Clean Air Act was last amended in 1990. Many of the provisions that are forcing EPA’s rulemaking agenda are more than 20 years old.

And, he makes it clear that he understands that pollution control technology has improved significantly since those reductions were ordered by Congress:

The Clean Air Act was last amended in 1990. Many of the provisions that are forcing EPA’s rulemaking agenda are more than 20 years old.

But then, he says this:

It is time for Congress to take stock of the emissions reductions and air quality improvements since it last amended the Clean Air Act in 1990. The air quality objectives EPA seeks can be achieved at lower cost to ratepayers and with less risk of widespread job losses if the rules are streamlined and phased in over a longer compliance period.

Cecil complains that:

The Clean Air Act’s deadline for meeting the new regulations is just 36 months after the rules are finalized in November. EPA can grant a one-year extension on a case-by-case basis. While some generating units will be retrofitted with additional pollution controls to meet the standards, hundreds of smaller and older units will simply be closed.

But then he acknowledges:

We need to retire older power plants and replace them with new advanced coal generation, creating jobs and reducing emissions in the process.

And, he writes:

To make matters worse, the new source limits EPA is proposing are so stringent that no new state-of-the-art power plant equipped with highly efficient scrubbers and other pollution controls could meet each of the multiple standards. Some of the new source standards are below the detection limits of current monitoring and testing equipment.

But according to some reports I’ve seen:

Proven pollution control technologies are available that will enable coal-fired power plants to meet the requirements of recently proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air rules, according to a new report from Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM).

The study details commercially available emission control technologies, including scrubbers, baghouses and dry sorbent injection, which will enable coal-fired power plants to comply with two major rules recently proposed by the EPA to control air pollution and protect public health—the Transport Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (“Air Toxics Rule”).

The study found that modern pollution controls can reduce emissions, including mercury, by 90 percent or more. In addition, the electric power sector has demonstrated that it is capable of planning for and installing pollution controlson a large portion of the nation’s generating capacity in a relatively short period of time, the study found.For example, between 2008 and 2010, the industry added about 60 GW of scrubbers and 20 GW of NOx catalyst systems.

A couple weeks ago, the mine workers joined in a Sierra Club petition backing historic preservation protections for the Blair Mountain battlefield. Union officials cringe at headlines that say things like, “UMWA backs Sierra Club.” That’s because management at non-union companies immediately use such headlines against any active union drives, trying to convince workers that Cecil Roberts won’t work to protect their job at a surface mine.

The same sort of politics is at work when Cecil Roberts writes op-eds like this one … without doubt, folks in the business community and the anti-Obama EPA movement will cite this piece as proof of the widespread opposition from companies and unions against the current administration. They’ll use it to back whatever proposals the Republicans in the House come up with to try to derail any reforms by EPA on just about anything.

That’s why it would be helpful if Cecil Roberts provided a more detailed public position on issues like this. If he’s against the proposed EPA rules, exactly what changes in the current Clean Air Act is he proposing be made?

In one previous post, Searching for Cecil Roberts, I defended the UMWA leader, trying to explain the difficult political line he has to walk on issues like mountaintop removal. In another, Searching for Cecil Roberts II, I kind of took him to task for some climate change “denier” talk he engaged in with our mutual buddy Hoppy Kerchival over at MetroNews.

I’ve also tried to get the UMWA to explain publicly what it believes would be — in the late Sen. Byrd’s words — a “prudent and profitable middle ground” on mountaintop removal.

Protecting the environment isn’t really Cecil Roberts’ job. He’s supposed to defend his members … but he’s also made it clear that he thinks protecting the environment in coalfield communities is important.  So exactly what are his proposals for reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal, controlling the deadly air pollution from coal-fired power plants, and quickly reducing coal’s contributions to global warming?