Coal Tattoo

Talking coal: What about things we have in common?

This week, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time on the phone with a few West Virginians who made it very clear they aren’t very happy with the way I cover the coal industry, and with coverage of mountaintop removal in particular.

Out of maybe a half-dozen callers in what they said is an organized effort, a couple were absolutely furious. They think that the Gazette — and I personally — hate them, are out to ruin the only option they see for supporting their families. Given that they firmly believe that, I don’t blame them one little bit for being angry. And I don’t mind at all giving them a chance to tell me how angry they are. It’s important to hear what people think. Everybody has something to teach, and I like to learn. Folks in the coal industry who actually know me realize that’s the truth. I do draw the line at some point with being cursed and screamed at, and to get my job done I can’t spend all day with that sort of thing.

A couple of other people expressed their outrage at me on Twitter, aiming comments at me like, “Get out of WV if you don’t support our coal or miners!” and “You, sir, are a disgrace to West Virginians.”

Other callers were a delight to talk with. Some joined my list of Facebook “friends” and I enjoyed looking at photos of they and their families, doing things that most West Virginians do … enjoying a meal, playing with their kids, taking beach trips, or just being together at home. One very nice lady told me some great stories she had heard from her father, an 85-year-old retired coal miner. I’d love to meet her dad some day and hear some of those stories in person.

This nice lady was especially worried that the “peaceful civil disobedience protests” at strip mining operations put the safety of miners — including her husband — at risk.  She didn’t realize that I shared her concerns, as I mentioned in a blog post just the other day:

And there is no question that being a police officer is made more difficult when citizens decide to break the law to make a political point — especially when in doing so they potentially put their safety and the safety of hard-working coal miners at risk.

She also didn’t realize that I agreed with her that the folks who work at surface mines in West Virginia have a right to be upset at what they see as a threat to the best avenue they have to earn a good living, take care of their families, and live a good life. I pointed out to her that I had written in that same blog post:

… Is it really so radical to want to have a good job that provides for your family, to be able to afford to send your kids to college, or to have health-care benefits when you retire?

One fellow who called me was shocked to hear that the Gazette had written a story to expose how Patriot Coal is considering trying to dump its obligations to pay for retiree pensions and health care as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. Another gentleman honestly didn’t know that the Gazette has done more stories about threats to coal miner health and safety than just about any media organization around.

Folks who organize call-in campaigns to the newspaper seldom mention those kinds of stories, which any reasonable person would agree show support for coal miners and their families.

No, what the industry has been spreading around this week was a blog post headlined, “Coal protests: Was this really so radical?”

All I was really trying to point out is that peaceful civil disobedience — such as trespassing and getting arrested — is not a new way to get a point across about a political issue. And I’m sorry, folks, but that’s just the truth. Gandhi did it. Martin Luther King Jr. did it. Gosh, even the United Mine Workers of America has done it.

Folks in the anti-mountaintop removal movement won’t like this, but there’s a legitimate question about how much good these sorts of protests are doing at this point. As peaceful as they are intended to be, some folks I know who otherwise oppose mountaintop removal think the protests are too confrontational, or that they play into stereotypes about the demographics of the anti-mountaintop removal movement. On the other hand, I just finished reading Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, and there’s a lot of discussion in there about how national coverage of the civil rights movement in the south raised national consciousness on that issue and helped lead to reforms. Not for nothing, but folks in Southern West Virginia who support mountaintop removal might keep in mind that the coverage from the south was most powerful when opponents of the civil rights movement were shown harassing protesters (or worse). In the West Virginia I know and love, people are kind and welcoming to everyone, even outsiders with whom they very strongly disagree. Why is it necessary to toss around F-bombs, flip people your middle finger, or set off an air horn right next to a protester’s ear? And that’s to say nothing of setting up your own little blockade or endangering everyone’s safety by chasing protesters down the four-lane highway.

In the blog post in question, I was also trying to again make the point that, at the heart of things, “both sides” of the debate over mountaintop removal and coal mining in general in West Virginia, have legitimate concerns. Wanting to not have your air polluted, your water contaminated, or your health damaged isn’t radical. Neither is wanting to have a good job to support your family.

But in today’s “political climate” as they say, some people believe the only way to make a point or help your cause is to paint the other side as being radical, or extreme, or un-American or something like that. My first encounter with that was back in 1994, when then-Gov. Gaston Caperton labeled anyone who questioned plans for a $1 billion pulp mill over in Mason County as an “extremist.” Of course, all folks wanted was for any mill that was built to use the latest pollution controls and promise to hire local workers. All these years later, it’s hard to understand what was so extreme about that. And I’m pretty sure the polarization that followed Gov. Caperton’s comments played a role in West Virginia never landing that project and the jobs it might have brought.

I haven’t made a study of figuring out which is worse, but both sides of the coal debate do this, and much of the blame for that goes to their out-of-control public relations agents. Just this week, the West Virginia Coal Association continued to throw around the phrase “war on coal,” even though they know very well what war is and that this isn’t war. Citizen groups greatly overstate their case on mountaintop removal exports, misstate the findings of the public health studies, and every once in a while revert to comparing mountaintop removal to the Holocaust or genocide.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with strong language.  But believe it or not, you don’t have to demonize the other side of a political discussion to make your point. Most people on both sides don’t do this. But there are cynical people working on both sides who care more about making their point, and winning the day, than about telling the truth, working together, and building a better future. Again, I haven’t made a study of which side is worse in this regard, and I’m not sure that really matters.

What should matter is that there are in fact things that everyone should and could agree are true, and they all add up to huge challenges for the West Virginia coalfields:

— While coal employs a fraction of the workers statewide that it did decades ago, and it’s not clear that the industry’s overall economic contribution to our state is what industry lobbyists would have us believe, in many coalfield counties, mining jobs and spinoff positions are the best hope for many West Virginians to have a good job that supports their families.

— For a whole variety of reasons — cheap natural gas, declining quality reserves, competition from other coal basins, and tougher power plant emissions rules — coal production in Central Appalachia is headed for what most experts believe is a serious decline. Coal likely isn’t going away, but its economic imprint is almost certainly going to drop even more than it already has. It’s wrong for politicians to keep telling people that if they can just defeat one particular presidential candidate, the good old days will magically return for coal.

— There’s no reason that U.S. coal miners should continue to die, whether it be in huge explosions like Upper Big Branch, the smaller, one-by-one accidents, or the terrible disease of black lung.

— The published science in the peer-reviewed journals is very clear that large-scale surface mining is very damaging to water quality in the region, and other well-established science shows serious adverse health impacts from the air emissions from coal-fired power plants.

— A growing number of studies show a statistical relationship between living near mountaintop removal mining operations and facing greater risks of serious health impacts, including birth defects and cancer. Studies are just beginning to try to unravel what’s going on here, to see if there’s a causal relationship, and more effort needs to be put into figuring this puzzle out quickly — rather than trying to pretend it’s not important.

Global warming is happening, and it’s a huge threat to human society. Coal is a major contributor, and every expert on the subject thinks something should be done about that. But coal’s best hope for survival in a carbon-constrained world, is simply not happening, in large part because industry has convinced lawmakers not to put a price on carbon emissions.

In some broad, general way, the environmental movement does a better job of facing most of these facts. But that’s in part because the resulting policy implications tend to bend their way. They aren’t as quick to face some of  these things, though,  like how coal isn’t quite going away yet, or the importance of coal to the economy in parts of our state — or how finding some way to transition our state isn’t going to be as easy as they make it sound.

Much of my reporting, and certainly my discussions this week, shows that folks who would describe themselves as being in the “pro-coal” camp aren’t quite yet accepting of many of the facts I listed there. Sen. Jay Rockefeller is among those who firmly blamed the coal industry’s PR machine for this, saying in his recent speech:

Carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future are the subject of paid television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns.

A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside forces, and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.

As Sen. Rockefeller also noted, many of these things are troublesome, downright scary — whether it’s because you’re worried the mine near you might be making your kids sick, or because you aren’t sure if the next pink slip will be yours. But the folks everyone should really be mad at aren’t the ones on the other side — or even those of us in the media who sometimes bring the bad news — it’s our state’s leadership, especially our elected officials.

Instead of coming together to discuss real solutions to these real challenges, we are treated to yet another election that focuses on silly things like whether Sen. Joe Manchin — who did an ad in which he shot a defenseless piece of climate change legislation — is part of the Obama administration’s conspiracy to end the coal industry, or whether Sen. Earl Ray Tomblin is in bed with the federal regulators at EPA.  Still, Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin aren’t innocent victims in this charade. They play along, trying desperately to avoid being labeled “anti-coal” and ignoring these real challenges.

What if, instead of grandstanding about these issues Sen. Manchin used his considerable personal political skills to actually find the “balance” he talks about? What if Gov. Tomblin called in his political supporters from his home county of Logan and told them they needed to back off their hostile counter-protests? What if Sen. Rockefeller went beyond just giving a speech? Or what if Rep. Nick J. Rahall would stop running from these issues, and work to ensure everyone in his Southern West Virginia district could find some answers?

It’s all so maddening it’s hard to know what to say or do about it. But can anybody really believe it wouldn’t be just a little bit better if everyone tried a little harder to understand the person on the other side? As I wrote the other day, we did see a few small examples of this last Saturday:

To their credit, the folks at RAMPS included a couple of interesting items in their list of “key messages” for Saturday’s protest:

Patriot Coal, owner of the Hobet mine, the largest surface mine in West Virginia, is currently going through chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was filed through a shell corporation in New York, created only months ago. In bankruptcy court, union contracts and pensions could be on the chopping block.

For each working miner, Patriot has more than four retired miners who have put their bodies on the line with faith that they would be supported in old age. This is a promise Patriot must keep.

And one of the more interesting stories I’ve heard is that some of the UMW members who work at Patriot had some polite conversations with the environmental activists, that the troublemakers mentioned in news reports were pro-coal folks from somewhere else, and that in a few instances, union miners actually helped protesters avoid some problem situations.

But if you watch the video of some of what happened, it makes you wonder about those popular stories about how nice and friendly West Virginians are, and it makes you realize this is all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.  Though it also makes you wonder if you could be pushed too far — to obscenities and maybe worse — if you really felt your way of life was on the line. What’s all the more troubling is that the people who should be appealing to our best selves, by encouraging dialogue and understanding, are doing the exact opposite, by trying to score political points with talk of “war” or “genocide,” depending on which side you’re on.

Organizers on both sides might do well to take a step back, and ask themselves how either the “war on coal” industry campaign or the direct action protests — let alone these rowdy counter-protests — are really bringing people together, or just tearing our beloved state further apart.

We in the media need to do more as well. We especially need to do a better job of educating all of our readers, viewers and listeners about the facts that are driving the challenges we face. We need to more often find experts who can tell us about possible paths and solutions, and less reporting that just finds two people on far opposite poles of the issue and pitting them against each other in print, online or on the air. At the same time, if you have strong feelings one way or the other, understand that the job of the media is not to simply parrot back at you what you want to hear. Journalists should be trying their best to report the truth as they find it.

Of course, the real solutions to West Virginia’s challenges go far beyond these questions about coal, to problems with our educational system, drugs, public health, infrastructure … the list goes on and on and on. Do we really have time to argue whether bail for these protesters was too high, or to peddle the same old tired partisan politics — let alone bicker about where we buy our chicken sandwiches?

But as sure as I’m writing this, the first comment I get will be from an angry pro-coal person, saying they just aren’t going to stand for a bunch of hippies coming to take their jobs, or from someone who opposes mountaintop removal saying, sure we can talk about economic transition — after they agree to stop blowing up the mountains and burying the streams. Isn’t the same old stuff getting a bit tiring?

As for me, I honestly can’t imagine what the coal miners and their families are going through. I didn’t grow up in a coal family, or in the Southern West Virginia coalfields. My family was from Piedmont, in Mineral County, and I grew up down the road from there in Keyser. But the places aren’t really so different. Where I came from, most everybody worked or had family who worked across the Potomac River at the Westvaco paper mill in Luke, Md. One of our most famous residents is the noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, and I’m sure people in Logan or Boone County can identify with what he wrote in the preface to his memoir:

My darkest fear is that Piedmont, West Virginia, will cease to exist, if some executives in Park Avenue decide that it is more profitable to build a completely new paper mill elsewhere than to overhaul one a century old. Then they would close it, just as they did in Cumberland with Celanese, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company. The town will die, but our people will not move. They will not be moved; Because for them, Piedmont — snuggled between the Allegheny Mountains and the Potomac River Valley — is life itself.

For many of our state’s residents, West Virginia is indeed life itself. But with due respect to Henry Louis Gates, I’d like to think the people of our state’s southern coalfields can move — can move forward. Together.