Coal Tattoo

President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 8, 2012, as he arrives from a day trip to from Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As you can see from today’s Gazette story, Mining causing widespread water damage, judge told, I spent West Virginia’s primary election day in federal court down in Huntington. The testimony of one of the top scientific experts on mountaintop removal’s impacts on water quality was worth the trip:

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University aquatic ecologist, detailed what she said are the conclusions of numerous scientific studies about mountaintop removal’s impacts on the region’s important headwater streams.

“It’s an enormous change in the chemistry of streams compared to what we see before mining,” Bernhardt told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers.

Bernhardt said the science is clear that mountaintop removal not only buries streams with valley fill waste piles, but also sends harmful levels of various pollution runoff into stream reaches beyond those fills.

There was more:

Bernhardt walked Chambers through a list of previous scientific papers that have shown impaired aquatic life — measured through reduced diversity of insects — downstream from mining and valley fill sites. Bernhardt said studies have clearly shown this impairment related to high levels of electrical conductivity, caused by sulfates and other mining pollutants.

“The weight of the evidence is very strong,” Bernhardt said.

… [Citizen group attorney Joe] Lovett asked if any peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published that contradict this conclusion. “Not that I’m aware of,” Bernhardt said.

As best I could tell, I was the only member of the West Virginia media to attend the hearing. The solid scientific consensus about mountaintop removal’s damage to our environment — not to mention the growing evidence of its impacts on public health — doesn’t get a lot of traction with local media, where if the story is told at all, it’s generally told with false balance that presents coal company public relations statements on equal level with the weight of the scientific evidence.

It was election day, though — so most reporters and editors spent the day in hurry-up-and-wait mode, preparing to push out numbers when the returns came in last night. If only as much effort were put into really informing the public about the hard issues facing our state’s coalfields as is put into churning out those returns, speculating or “calling” races, and — thanks to modern social networking — “tweeting” about either the results.

Because when you think about it, what was going on in federal court yesterday not only said a lot about one of the most covered, and yet poorly covered, issues in West Virginia, but it also showed perfectly what’s so often wrong with the way our political and media establishment here ensures that some of the more important, but also more uncomfortable, challenges we face as a state aren’t really discussed in a way that would help us move forward.

In the courtroom, Alpha Natural Resources — the “new ownership in Southern West Virginia“, as Rep. Nick Rahall likes to call them, attempting to paint Alpha a better than Massey Energy — is doing all it can to limit what can be talked about in this lawsuit before Judge Chambers. Oddly, so is the Obama administration. And so is Judge Chambers. Alpha argues the judge has little ability to consider whether the Army Corps of Engineers was right or wrong in issuing the permit that’s being challenge.  Obama lawyers contend citizen groups have no right to put on new evidence, such as the science the Corps ignored when it approved the permit. And Judge Chambers wanted no part of any discussion of those WVU studies linking mountaintop removal to serious public health damage in the coalfields.

And in the media, the big story today is going to be Keith Judd, the Texas inmate who has apparently scored more than 40 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic party primary for president. Larry Messina’s AP story provides the conventional outlook on what this all means:

Obama’s energy policies and the Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of mining-related permits have incurred the wrath of West Virginia’s coal industry. With the state the nation’s second-biggest producer of this fossil fuel, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin -both Democrats have championed the industry – have declined to say whether they will support Obama in November.

Unfortunately, the more important part of all of this doesn’t fit neatly into a quick-hit political story churned out late on election night. I’m not knocking Larry here. But the way the media covers elections, with the focus on the horse race, the advertising war, and the soundbites, doesn’t lend itself to a broader perspective.

The conventional narrative, championed by Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Manchin is this: President Obama and his people have some ingrained, unreasonable hatred of the coal industry (or maybe all fossil fuels), and their “war on coal” is killing our state’s economy. The unavoidable conclusion from this narrative is that if we could just get Obama and his EPA off our backs, West Virginia would boom again — we could have 100,000 coal miners working again, and places like McDowell County would have three movie theaters and instead of being a string of ghost towns.

Tricia Christensen wears a mask during a rally Monday, May 7, 2012, in Portland, Ore.  Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, Climate Solutions and Greenpeace sponsored the rally to fight a half-dozen proposals to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia through Northwest ports. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Ignored in this popular narrative, though, are some important points:

— There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the coal industry’s impacts on environment and public health. There’s the clear science showing mountaintop removal’s pervasive and irreversible impacts on the region’s environment. There’s the growing evidence linking mountaintop removal to serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects. And there’s the overwhelming evidence tying the burning of coal to a variety of other serious health problems and premature deaths.

— While coal provides good-paying jobs to a fortunate, but ever-declining few in Appalachia, the last decade has seen the return of coal mining disasters at Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. And far, far more miners die — 10,000 in a recent decade — from black lung, a deadly disease that’s on the rise again in our region.

— Coal is a major contributor to global warming pollution, a matter that most scientists consider a grave threat to humanity.  The only way to keep using coal and combat climate change at the same time is to deploy carbon capture and storage technology broadly on power plants around the world.  Experts agree that won’t happen unless there are binding emissions reductions — something the Obama administration has proposed for new power plants in a rule that’s the latest step by EPA to prompt ridiculous rhetoric from folks in the industry.

— In Central Appalachian — meaning Southern West Virginia — coal production is in the midst of a serious decline that’s likely to see output cut in half by the end of this decade.  This trend will hit the region hard, but just try to get Sen. Manchin or Gov. Tomblin on the record about it or about their plans for seeing the state and its residents safely through this turmoil. As has been well documented, this trend has little to do with government regulations, but you won’t hear that from our political leaders.

U.S. Senator , D-W. Va. Joe Manchin, wife Gail, center right, and an entourage of supporters address the voters of West Virginia to thank them for their continued support   in Charleston, W. Va., Tuesday May, 8, 2012.  (AP Photo/The Charleston Gazette, Chip Ellis)

But these aren’t things that Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Manchin want to talk about — and they aren’t things that either of them want you or me to talk about, either. And most of the media coverage goes right along with it. The standard campaign story now is most likely to focus on complaints from Republicans John Raese and Bill Maloney that the Democratic incumbents haven’t done enough pandering to coal supporters.

If you look closely at what both Gov. Tomblin and Sen. Manchin have said regarding their willingness to vote for President Obama in November, it all boils down to coal. And neither of them has really articulated any clear plan for dealing with the above-stated problems, except to ignore them and attack EPA — over and over and over and over.

Some in the media are pointing fingers at the Obama campaign this morning, questioning why top officials — perhaps including the president — haven’t come here to explain their policies. Two things come to mind in that regard.

First, does anyone really believe that if President Obama or EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came to West Virginia to discuss mountaintop removal, global warming, or air pollution rules, that they would get anything remotely approaching fair treatment from say, West Virginia MetroNews or the Daily Mail? Shouldn’t the media be telling readers what the real impact of the administration’s policies is, regardless of whether they get to cover a presidential visit along the way?

Second, recall that President Obama delivered a stirring eulogy to to the miners who died at Upper Big Branch, declaring:

How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work; by simply pursuing the American dream?

We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground.

Do you think much of West Virginia’s media will focus between now and November on whether President Obama or Mitt Romney would be better for miner safety and health? Will there be many stories about efforts by Republicans in Congress to strip MSHA of its ability to do something about black lung?

It was interesting over the weekend to watch the furious reaction from some quarters to the Gazette’s editorial, Pathetic: Tomblin, Manchin, especially to this part:

Although West Virginia has almost two-to-one Democratic registration, this rural, less-educated state slipped into the conservative “red” category in national politics, as Dixie did previously.

I’m not sure that exit polls from the 2008 election (the only real data I’m aware of that might explain why West Virginia voters didn’t cast ballots for Obama) really support the notion that being a “less-educated state” had a lot to do with the vote for John McCain.  That data cuts both ways. West Virginia had a higher percentage of voters who were not college graduates than the nation as a whole. But the Obama-McCain split among non-college graduates was almost the same as the state’s split as a whole. And among those who described themselves as only having graduated high school, the percentage who voted for Obama was only slightly below the national figure.

West Virginians who are fortunate enough to have attended and graduated from college don’t much like it when anybody in the media refers to the state as generally under-educated.  But as the good folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy have pointed out, our state’s lack of educational attainment among residents is a major problem that needs much more work — and pretending this problem doesn’t exist isn’t likely to accomplish anything. It reminds me of folks who take great offense when the national media publishes photographs of snake handlers or Klan members in rural parts of Appalachia, yet don’t seem to mind when the coal industry responds to health studies linking coal-mining to birth defects by trying to blame it all on inbreeding.

The Gazette editorial didn’t directly take on some of the “war on coal” rhetoric from Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin, but it did have this to say:

Manchin and Tomblin say their aversion to Obama stems from the federal administration’s effort to reduce coal pollution and damage, which imperils coal industry jobs. But, in reality, out-of-state coal corporation owners care nothing about West Virginia jobs. This state had 125,000 miners just after World War II, but mine owners installed huge machines that eliminated 110,000 miners in this state.

Even if conservatives in Congress halt White House pollution restrictions, it wouldn’t guarantee that out-of-state owners would hire more West Virginians. Instead, they’d probably buy bigger machines.

Some folks I talked to thought the discussion of mechanization had no place in this editorial. I don’t have anything to do with what the editorials say here at the Gazette, but it is worth remembering what the great historian, John Alexander Williams, wrote in his, West Virginia: A History, on this issue:

… Persons who have studied the impact of coal mining on different societies from Silesia to northern Japan have usually concluded that coal has been a curse upon the land that yielded it. West Virginia is no exception. In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small proportion of the people it has touched. There has been, of course, a tiny elite of smaller producers and middlemen who grew rich from coal exploitation although not so rich as the nonresident owners in whose shadow the local elite worked. For those West Virginians who lived at a remove from the industry, its impact has been more ambiguous. Certainly coal created opportunities that were not there in the agricultural era, but it also created new problems, especially as the owners of the industry have always tried and have usually succeeded in passing off the external or social costs of coal production to the public at large. Moreover, the industry called into being a larger population than West Virginia’s other economic resources can support so that, even after the great migration of the postwar years, the position of the state is like that of an addict. West Virginia is ‘hooked’ on coal, for better or for worse. In the past, it has generally been for the worst.

Complaints from Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin about the proposals from the Obama administration to deal with coal’s worst aspects would have more credibility if, instead of ignoring these issues, instead of refusing to talk about them and hoping nobody else would, if instead they confronted climate change and mountaintop removal, and mine safety and the coming market collapse, and outlined their own plans for dealing with these challenges.