Coal Tattoo

If coal is so good, then why is W.Va. so poor?

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A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

As we wrap up another week of news from the coalfields of West Virginia, it’s worth looking back to see exactly who is asking the tough questions that need to be asked about this industry and its impacts on our state.

First, it takes a couple of members of Congress from California of all places to press Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, about exactly how opposing unions fits into his company’s notion of “Running Right.”

West Virginia’s elected officials don’t seem to be interested in finding out what Crutchfield is doing to reform the Massey Energy safety practices that brought us the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Contrast the grilling of Crutchfield by Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey to the attitude of Rep. Nick Rahall, who this week touted “the new ownership in Southern West Virginia” as the answer to any coal-related problems. Of course, my good friend Congressman Rahall, despite spending more than 30 years in Washington, hasn’t been able to figure out what agency should look into the recent scientific study that found his constituents who live near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of birth defects.

Then, we had a Boston native, billionaire business information mogul (and mayor New York City) coughing up $50 million of his personal wealth to help the Sierra Club fight construction of new coal-fired power plants, encourage the closure of polluting older plants and halt new mountaintop removal mining permits.

That move by Michael Bloomberg really touched a nerve with the powers that be in West Virginia’s coal industry and among some of its political allies.

The United Mine Workers issued a statement blasting Bloomberg. So did the National Mining Association. I couldn’t imagine that Sen. Joe Manchin was going to let it slide, and he didn’t disappoint, issuing a press release saying:

Coal not only built this country, but it built the skyscrapers of New York City, and without coal, the lights of that city would be dark and its economy would be devastated.

My buddy Matt Ballard at the Charleston Area Alliance (a local business booster group) must have gotten the memo on this, because I noticed him tweeting about it:

1/2 Really would have liked 2 have seen #Bloomberg donate $ to build CO2 technology to help make coal cleaner & advance the industry.

2/2 tech advances environmental science to help reduce #CO2. But instead he chose to not think about our domestic security. #Bloomberg

That was a general theme from the UMWA, the NMA and Sen. Manchin … that Mayor Bloomberg should have used his money to support development of  “clean coal” technology such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

OK, now let’s be clear again on something: American Electric Power dropped its work on one of the largest CCS test projects in history over in Mason County at its Mountaineer Plant. Why? Because federal and state officials have failed to make such technology necessary, by not passing any sort of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

So if the Charleston Area Alliance, the UMWA and Sen. Manchin are so big on CCS and “clean coal,” surely they supported the legislation that AEP said would have helped make the Mountaineer Plant project feasible, right?

Perhaps I’ve missed it. But I’m not aware of any steps that Matt Ballard or his organization have taken to encourage implementation of any sort of limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The last thing I saw out of Matt on these issues was an op-ed commentary blasting EPA’s efforts to try to reduce coal pollution.

The United Mine Workers? Well, they say the union says it supports CCS and legislation to deal with the climate crisis.  But while UMW officials said the Waxman-Markey bill provided “remarkable” funding to help CCS and assured that the future of coal would be “intact,” the union just couldn’t bring itself to actually endorse the bill — let alone encourage coalfield elected officials to vote for it.

And Sen. Manchin … well, gosh, my good friend Sen. Manchin got elected to the senate in part with a television ad where he shot a poor, defenseless piece of legislation.

Of course, Sen. Manchin’s very active press office churned out a release attacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final guidance to reduce mountaintop removal pollution:

I am so frustrated to see that the Environmental Protection Agency is ignoring federal law and issuing its final guidance on water quality without giving the public a real chance to talk about how their burdensome approach is impacting our jobs and our economy. Since the EPA hasn’t listened to the people of my state on this issue, I know that West Virginians would tell them that this guidance puts our workers in the coal industry in a tough position, jeopardizing their jobs, our communities and our state’s economy. The EPA has been very callous in their approach to preserving the good jobs that we have and are trying to keep. I will do everything in my power as U.S. Senator to stop the EPA from regulating what has not been legislated.

Now, not for nothing, but I have yet to see one single member of West Virginia’s political leadership issue a press release to alert the media and the public to their concerns about the increased risk of birth defects among state residents who live near mountaintop removal mines.

But Sen. Manchin wants to talk about jobs, communities and the economy. So let’s talk about those things … I wonder if he or any of our other elected officials read the thoughtful report issued yesterday by the good people at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy.

Remember when Sen. Rockefeller said that “coal defines us“? Well, in their report, “Boom and Busts,” Sean O’Leary and Ted Boettner explain:

Although mining remains an important part of the economy, it has been steadily shrinking as a share of the state’s economy. Earnings from mining, as a percent of personal income, have been declining since the late 1970s.

Despite a slight uptick in the 2000s, mining provides a much smaller percent of the state’s total earnings than it did 30 years ago.

West Virginia’s share of the national mining sector has also been declining. Its share fell from nearly 10 percent in 1972 to 5.5 percent in 2009. The shrinking importance of West Virginia’s mining economy, both relative to the state and nationally, helps to explain the poor long-term performance of West Virginia’s mining counties.

When nearly 1/5th of personal income in West Virginia came from mining earnings, it was easy for the booming mining sector to be the driver of economic growth. However, as mining’s share of the economy fell, so too did the economic performance of the mining counties. Without economic diversity, mining counties saw their fortunes rise and fall with the energy booms and busts.

If mining counties continue to have little economic diversity, then they likely will continue to underperform and be poorly positioned to compete economically with other counties and other states. The absence of an educated workforce hurts future competiveness, creating a lack of entrepreneurship and productivity, and the high levels of income inequality create an unstable foundation for economic growth.

This important report outlines some of the root problems — lack of economic diversity, lower education levels, high income inequality — and questions whether the natural boom-and-bust cycle of an energy economy is really the answer:

In the past, West Virginia counties with a concentration in mining saw their economic performance dramatically decline after an energy development boom. Today, their economies are weaker than the rest of the state, and they are ill-positioned to compete and grow. It is uncertain whether today’s energy boom, led by natural gas extraction, will bring the prosperity to West Virginia that it promises. While the potential revenues from this boom seem to be an attractive source of economic growth for communities, history shows that natural resource booms inevitably lead to busts.

The conclusions are such a stark contrast to what West Virginia’s elected officials are telling their constituents: That there’s another huge boom — probably a long and very prosperous one — just around the corner, if only we can get these trouble-making outside agitators like the EPA, the Sierra Club and Michael Bloomberg off our backs.

Michael Hendryx at West Virginia University, a brave researcher at a coal-loving institution, published another important paper on this very issue recently. It’s called, “Poverty and Mortality Disparities in Central Appalachia: Mountaintop Mining and Environmental Justice,” and it appears in the current issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice.

In this paper, Dr. Hendryx examined mortality rates, poverty rates, Appalachian designation and mining activity in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. He was trying to determine if people exposed to this type of mining experience greater poverty and higher death rates compared to other types of mining or other areas of Appalachia.

The paper found:

Mountaintop mining areas had significantly higher mortality rates, total poverty rates and child poverty rates every year compared to other referent counties of these states. Both poverty and mountaintop mining were independently associated with age-adjusted mortality rates in nested models.

And the paper concludes:

Persons living in MTM areas experience persistently elevated poverty and mortality rates. Higher mortality is independently associated with both poverty and MTM, the latter effect suggestive of a possible environmental contribution from mining activities. Efforts to reduce longstanding health disparities in Appalachia must focus on those areas where disparities are concentrated: the Appalachian coalfields.

This paper notes that our country, through the National Institutes of Health, has targeted Appalachia as part of the national effort to reduce and eliminate disparities based on race, socioeconomic status, rural or urban setting, region and other variables. Dr. Hendryx writes:

To achieve the national goal of eliminating Appalachian disparities, efforts must concentrate on reducing and eliminating disparities specifically in the central Appalachian MTM region.

For these efforts to succeed, we will need to address both socioeconomic and potential environmental risks faced by area residents. Persons exposed to environmental risks are more likely to experience adverse health consequences when they are already vulnerable due to other risks, such as those imposed by poverty. Even in the face of uncertainty regarding individual-level environmental exposures, prudent and reasonable efforts to reduce environmental risks can include stricter monitoring and enforcement of air and water quality standards, and restrictions on MTM practices to ensure that they occur only when adequate environmental quality standards can be met during mining and post-mining reclamation activities. Efforts to reduce poverty can include economic diversification and job creation programs; investments in K-12, vocational, college, and adult education; and modifications to tax structures to divert public dollars to geographic areas of greatest needs. These efforts become even more important when we consider that coal reserves in central Appalachia are expected to peak and production to enter permanent decline within the next few years, further reducing coal’s economic contributions to the region.