The cognitive dissonance of coal politics in W.Va.

January 12, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin certainly did a lot of Washington bashing last night in his State of the State address. For example:

This is not Washington D.C., where partisan bickering has subverted the legislative process. This is West Virginia, where the republican and democrat, liberal and conservative, come together, resolve differences, and take decisive action.

Gosh, it’s a good thing that there’s no bickering among politicians in West Virginia … no fighting over something like the gubernatorial succession, whether an acting governor can move into the mansion or who gets to run the state Senate while the Senate President is acting as governor. And certainly, our leaders can do something like draw up new congressional districts without ending up in an embarrassing court battle that leaves voters unsure which district they’ll be in come election time.

But that’s not all Gov. Tomblin said about Washington. He went on:

This is not Washington D.C., where uncontrolled spending has led to uncertainty, a lack of confidence, and a fundamental breakdown in the operation of government. This is West Virginia, where we figured out in a realistic way to cut waste, balance the budget, reduce the tax burden, and commit to our citizens and our businesses, that this is a great place to work, live, and play.

And of course:

This is not Washington D.C., where the EPA and other governmental agencies engage in back-door policy making that threatens the very livelihood of so many of our fellow citizens. This is West Virginia, where we appreciate the need for reasonable, open environmental regulations but understand the fundamental need for jobs and for low cost, reliable energy developed right here in the United States of America.

Never mind the huge role that federal outlays for our aging population, the disabled and the poor — not to mention the fact that, as the fine folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy explained, federal government spending has played a major part in the economy recovery in West Virginia.  I was reminded of the scene from The West Wing where President Bartlet asks his election rival, a fictional governor who campaigns on an anti-Washington platform, if the federal government can have back all the money it funneled that state’s way:

Most of Gov. Tomblin’s venom at Washington is aimed squarely at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The governor said last night:

Let me now speak very directly about one of my problems with Washington.

As long as I am Governor I will continue to fight this administrations war on coal! A few months ago, a federal court agreed with our lawsuit and ruled that the federal EPA had in fact overstepped its authority. I will keep fighting until Washington recognizes that one of the keys to America’s future is the use and promotion of our natural resources. It is a fight from which I will not shrink, and one that I fully expect to win!

But what was maddening was that this came just a few moments after these comments:

Our State continues to demonstrate that it can compete on a global level in a worldwide economy. One such example is Carbonxt, Inc., an Australian based company, which recently announced plans to build a $30 million plant to convert coal into pure carbon. A product which will help make coal-fired plant emissions burn cleaner. This clean coal technology will be produced here in Kanawha County and will create 40 high-tech, manufacturing jobs.

OK, so let’s be clear … as previously reported in the Gazette, (subscription required)  here’s what Carbonxt does:

Carbonxt’s plant will take coal and turn it into activated carbon, a porous product that the company will sell to utilities that operate coal-fired plants. The carbon captures mercury from flue gas.

“The Institute site is an ideal place for a manufacturing operation,” said Carbonxt CEO David Mazyck, a University of Florida environmental engineering professor who helped to develop the technology. “West Virginia gives us the availability of the raw material and proximity to customers.”

That’s right, while Gov. Tomblin is bashing EPA for being so tough on the coal industry, jobs are being created right here in Kanawha County to help utilities here comply with air pollution regulations that will also protect human health and the environment.  Local leaders often join Gov. Tomblin in bashing EPA, but folks like the Charleston Area Alliance also fall all over themselves to take credit for jobs like those being created at Carbonxt.

Green jobs are a growing part of the nation’s economy — really the world’s.  Gov. Tomblin couldn’t be bothered to talk about the green economy or clean energy in any real way, but the folks at Downstream Strategies have explained how these areas could be a significant part of West Virginia’s future if policymakers would focus on them.  As Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, told me last night:

Sooner or later, the benefits of cleaning up our environment — of clean air and clean water — are going to be appreciated by our political leaders. And they will be appreciated in the terms they understand most: Money. Cleaning up the environment will save lives and save money in the long run.

Psychologists talk about a concept called “cognitive dissonance,” in which we humans are made uncomfortable by competing beliefs or desires — such as wanting to smoke, but knowing that smoking is going to kill you, to cite an extreme, but common, example. Maybe this sort of thing is just the way it is in West Virginia, part of our love-hate relationship with 100 years of coal mining. Maybe it’s why state political leaders — with really nothing up their sleeve in the way of economic alternatives for coal-producing counties — make somewhat contorted faces and try desperately to change the subject when anyone dares mention the growing body of science linking living near mountaintop removal operations to increased rates of cancer and birth defects.

But if you listen to speeches like the Gov. Tomblin gave last night, can you really wonder why mines like Upper Big Branch — a place independent investigator Davitt McAteer described as a disaster waiting to happen — don’t get shut down by state or federal government inspectors.  It’s become assumed that anyone who wants to get anywhere in West Virginia politics has to immediately condemn any sort of regulatory action that might in any way interfere with the continued flow of coal production. Given the “war on coal” rhetoric, how is some overworked and underpaid state inspector expected to stand up and say a mine needs to be closed? McAteer and his team talked about this very issue in their landmark report on the deaths of 29 men at Upper Big Branch:

State mine inspectors face an additional obstacle, which can be described simply as the politics of the state of West Virginia. while the chain of command for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration extends away from West Virginia toward the nation’s capital, the chain of command for West Virginia state inspectors leads directly into the governor’s office. A mine operator who is unhappy with an inspector’s actions has only to pick up the phone and call any one of a number of state officials or the governor’s office to issue his complaint.

The reality is that powerful industries and their leaders cast long shadows over the state’s government is not unique to West Virginia, nor is it unique to the coal industry. It is a problem facing regulators of any large industry. But, with a powerful national lobby, the coal industry poses unique challenges for small state agencies that try to regulate it with inadequate resources …

There are within the WVMHST many dedicated, committed, and safety-conscious inspectors and supervisors who are not afraid to issue citations or provide tough enforcement. However, the overwhelming scope of the job, the economic circumstances of a booming coal industry, the pressure to get along, the recognition of the importance of mining jobs within the state are factors that place immense pressure on state inspector, pressures which make the regulatory enforcement process difficult to carry out. For those dedicated safety officials and for the workers whose lives hang in the balance, the politics of coal must be acknowledged in any discussion of workplace safety and a commitment must be made to ensure that the public interest — miners’ safety — is the foremost consideration.

If this stuff is tough for state safety inspectors — who might get a little benefit of the doubt from politicians if the memories of a recent disaster are still fresh — then it’s got to be doubly hard for environmental inspectors, whose job is belittled as nothing but a waste of money aimed at putting the lives of bugs or salamanders ahead of jobs.

But if you look strictly at coal-mine safety for a minute, remember that Gov. Tomblin proposed a list of safety reforms last night, saying:

Just as we must continue to mine coal, we must make certain that our miners are safe. We have created a new rock dusting laboratory. We have increased the number and the salaries for our mine inspectors. We are re-checking our rescue chambers to make sure that they are safe. And, we have diligently worked to determine the causes of the Upper Big Branch disaster to make sure a disaster like that never happens again!

To build on this progress, I will submit legislation designed to improve mine safety. This legislation will enhance rock dusting standards, protect whistleblowers, mandate methane sensors at long walls, and increase pre-shift reviews. We will prohibit mines from announcing that an inspector is coming, and we will provide more training for self-rescuers. We will also begin a year-long study on the training of our inspectors, our foreman, and our miners. Coal mining is a dangerous profession, but we can make it safer. One death in our mines is one death too many.

One line in there really jumped out at me. It was where Gov. Tomblin took credit for this:

We are re-checking our rescue chambers to make sure that they are safe.

It’s true that the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training last year ordered special inspections of underground mine rescue shelters to check on potential problems that could put miners’ lives at risk.  But does Gov. Tomblin really want to take credit for how this was handled? Remember what we reported in the Gazette back in October, under the headline, “State, feds delayed action on mine shelters“:

Concerns about potentially faulty underground mine refuge shelters are much broader than previously reported, but federal and state regulators delayed action on the matter for months, interviews and a review of public records showed this week.

Corroded and improperly sized fittings could be a problem for more than 1,500 shelters in use in coal mines across the country — including both inflatable, “tent-design” units and other, hardened steel structures, officials acknowledged and records indicated.

Federal and state mine safety officials have understood the problem for months, but only began taking enforcement action in September. Even then, firm steps were delayed at the behest of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, after coal industry lobbyists complained about the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training’s plans.

At the time:

Jacqueline A. Proctor, a spokeswoman for Tomblin, said the governor’s office “did not intervene at the request of any organization” and has “full confidence” in [mine safety director C.A.] Phillips. Proctor said the governor’s office routinely monitors enforcement actions by state agencies, and did so in this instance to ensure the order was clear and contained deadlines that industry would be able to meet.

Coal industry regulators know that politicians are looking over their shoulder, eager to take advantage of any potential slight to the operators, jump on it and use the situation to show their allegiance to the industry … The message from McAteer’s report — whether Gov. Tomblin wants to hear it or not — is that until this dynamic changes, all the safety laws, environmental rules and inspectors in the world won’t be enough to protect workers, coalfield residents, and the environment. And certainly, until this dynamic changes, West Virginia will never confront and address the downsides of this important industry.

3 Responses to “The cognitive dissonance of coal politics in W.Va.”

  1. Vernon says:

    Thanks Ken for your rather bold expose’ of the heart of WV’s ills. I wish more in the media had the courage to address the real life-and-death issues that face us, rather than printing industry talking points as factual news and treating those of us facing coal industry abuses as either nonexistent or as outside agitators.

  2. Jim Sconyers says:

    EPA bashing is like an official sport in West Virginia. In addition to Ken’s explication, we have antiquated inefficient unprofitable coal-fired power plants that have outlived their usefulness. Yet when the power companies decide to retire these plants, the politicians rant about how regulation and the EPA caused the closure.

  3. Dee Fulton says:

    Thank you, Ken, for this lucid review of our Governor’s address. The speech was disturbing on many levels. Perhaps the most embarrassing was that the Governor was so ignorant about the use of activated carbon for mercury capture at the flue stack rather than use as ‘clean burning coal’ (which so far exists only in the land of unicorns.) Such a gaffe in a prepared speech is astounding.
    It would behoove the Governor to have a scientific advisor educate him about what is actually going on with industry and the environmental impacts AND review his speeches before they go public. With such a poor grasp of the basics of mercury capture, it is easy to believe that our Governor is equally poorly-informed regarding the impacts to public health and the environment of
    industrial activity such as mountaintop removal and fracking for natural gas.

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