Coal Tattoo

Coal politics: Let the silly season begin

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters at a campaign event at El Palacio de los Jugos in Miami, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Let’s be honest: The political discourse surrounding the Appalachian coal industry was already pretty silly.

I mean come one, we had Republican candidates arguing that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin were in league with the Obama administration to destroy the mining industry (see here, for example). In response, the best that the Obama team could do was to take an absurd shot at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for basically telling the truth, in saying that air pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.

Now that Governor Romney has picked his running mate, it seems things are going to kick into an even higher gear. Couldn’t they have at least waited until Labor Day?

Yesterday, a new group calling itself the COALition announced its effort to support a Romney victory in West Virginia. Taylor Kuykendall at the State Journal reports:

In announcing support of Romney, the COALition also released Romney’s position statement on coal, a document that contains questions asked by pro-coal groups from West Virginia during the primary. It begins with a general energy policy statement, and then continues with some of Romney’s stances on the coal industry.

“In my administration coal will not be a four letter word,” the position statement says, a line Romney has used in op-ed’s before. “Instead, we will applaud the industry’s success in consistently expanding electricity output while reducing pollution. Coal-fired power plants are critical to a diverse and affordable electricity supply, and coal-to-liquids technologies hold the potential to add much-needed flexibility and security to out supply of transportation fuels.”

Of course, what the discussion so far from both sides ignores are the many real problems facing the coalfields (and the coal industry): Increased competition from natural gas and other coal regions, a declining base of economically extractable reserves, serious water quality and human health issues linked to large-scale surface mining, the deadly toll of black lung disease.

President Barack Obama addresses the crowd during a campaign stop Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Boone, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The coal industry is having none of what Sen. Jay Rockefeller has encouraged — a toned-down, more nuanced, and more reasoned approach to trying to tackle these kinds of challenges. So far, the Republicans certainly haven’t headed in that direction. And while he apparently thinks (correctly) that the political media heads for the least-common denominator of shallow discourse, President Obama’s own campaign certainly hasn’t done much to rise above that level thus far in its limited discussion of coalfield issues.

It would be educational, for example, for both campaigns to talk about their visions for improving coal miner health and safety, addressing the issues that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks about in a new coalfield campaign mailer, as described by the State Journal’s Pam Kasey:

As the COALition for Romney was unveiled by southern West Virginia coal supporters Aug. 13, the AFL-CIO made its own unveiling: a coal-country mailer opposing Mitt Romney.

“I worked in the mines. And so did my father until he died of black lung disease,” reads the text of the mailer, next to a photo of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a third generation coal miner from Nemacolin, Pa.

“I keep his helmet in my office so I’ll never forget why we need elected leaders who stand up for people who wear helmets every day,” it continues. “That’s why we can’t afford people like Mitt Romney who are putting corporate profits before worker health and safety.”

Black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially debilitating and deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust.

The incidence of black lung disease has doubled over the last 15 years, after having been nearly eradicated in the late 20th century, the union’s media release states.