Coal Tattoo

Rep. Conyers calls out the coal industry

The first press release to come in was, predictably, from our good friend, Sen. Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat invited Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to discuss his comments “degrading West Virginia.”

Then came a statement from United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, saying he was “extremely disappointed” by Conyer’s remarks about the coal industry. Last — and after the close of business hours — we got a release in which Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor said:

It is a sad day indeed when a congressman such as John Conyers attacks our State, our people, and a resource that not only has powered our Country but must also continue to play a significant role in the economic health of our economy.

For a minute, I thought for sure that Rep. Conyers must have picked up where the coal industry’s lawyers left off, blaming any increased health problems among residents of West Virginia’s southern coalfields on the fact that we’re all inbred hillbillies. But no, here’s all that Rep. Conyers dared to say:

There’s a big campaign going on about how you clean coal and we want to examine that as critically and fairly as we can, but here’s the problem: I’ve been to West Virginia, and that’s about all they’ve got there.

We’ve got to work out a situation in one state of the union, there may be others, in which we come up with alternative ways of creating full employment without just putting everybody out of work.

OK. In fairness to Sen. Manchin, Cecil Roberts and Senate President Tomblin, there is a paraphrase — not a direct quote — in the story by Greenwire (subscription required)[UPDATED – The Greenwire story has now been posted on the New York Times site here] that said this:

He called for the industry to be shut down in the state and for those who rely on coal jobs there to find alternative employment.

UPDATED: I asked Greenwire about this paraphrase, and reporter John McArdle was kind enough to share with me some more information about where that line in the story came from. After the speech, McArdle asked Rep. Conyers about his remarks on West Virginia and coal, “You would like all those people to get out of the coal industry?” Conyers responded:

If there’s no such thing as clean coal and coal is a major polluter then yes.

McArdle asked, “Shut the industry down and find alternative employment? Conyers said:

That’s what I said.

We posted a news story about this matter earlier this evening on the Gazette’s website here.  But frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what the big deal in some ways. The bulk of Rep. Conyer’s point seems to be that West Virginia needs a more diverse economy. Anybody really disagree with that?

Of course, Rep. Conyers also says that “from my limited understanding, there is no such thing as clean coal” and he adds that the history of coal mining in West Virginia “is one of the sorriest reports you’ll ever see.”

Now let’s see, more than 21,000 West Virginia coal miners have died in on-the-job accidents in West Virginia. Untold thousands more died from black lung disease. Just a couple of weeks ago, none other than Cecil Roberts was attacking the West Virginia State Museum because it fails to adequately depict his union’s history of “struggle and oppression” for fair treatment by the state’s coal industry.

It’s been just 15 months since 29 West Virginia coal miners died in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation. There’s a growing consensus among scientists that mountaintop removal coal mining is causing pervasive and irreversible impacts on the Appalachian environment — and WVU’s Michael Hendryx and his colleagues have published paper after paper outlining very troubling associations between increased disease and living near mountaintop removal operations.

There’s really no question at all that burning coal causes and contributes to thousands of premature deaths and various illnesses every year, imposing huge hidden costs on not just human lives but our economy. Despite industry-backed reports that tout the coal industry’s economic contributions to our state, other more independent research shows coal’s costs to state government are actually more than its contributions.

And, of course, there’s the biggest problem of all: Coal’s huge contributions to global warming. West Virginia political leaders talk a good game about “clean coal,” but none of them were willing to support legislation or regulation to require cuts in carbon dioxide from power plants — thus prompting utilities like American Electric Power to see no reason to move forward with perfecting and deploying carbon capture and storage technology that might actually keep coal viable in a carbon-constrained world.

Cecil Roberts complains that Rep. Conyers wants to “throw [people] out of work” and Early Ray Tomblin’s press release refers to the congressman’s “disrespect for West Virginia, [and the] hard-working men and women of the coal industry.”

But lots of elected officials, not to mention activists, have called for shutting down the coal industry. Rep. Conyers is among the few that seem to make a major point of talking about what might happen to the men and women who rely on the industry to put food on their tables. Don’t forget that most projections are calling for a major reduction in Central Appalachian coal production by the end of this decade — regardless of what regulators do about air pollution, climate change or mountaintop removal.

Isn’t a welcome change for an out-of-state politician who criticizes the coal industry to talk in the same speech — several times, apparently — about the need to do something to improve coalfield economies, to provide jobs in more than one industry?

And anyway, not for nothing, but where were all of these press releases when the coal industry’s lawyers said we were all a bunch of inbred hillbillies?