Coal Tattoo

Patriot: Some common ground in coal debate?

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

We have an update in this morning’s Gazette about the United Mine Workers of America’s new “Fighting for Fairness at Patriot” campaign, reporting this:

Kelly Elswick mined coal for more than 30 years, finishing his career running a grader at the Hobet 21 mountaintop removal complex along the Boone-Lincoln county line.

After fighting cancer — going through chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant — the 56-year-old Madison resident has been looking forward to his retirement.

But now Elswick is worried he’ll lose his pension and his health-care benefits if Patriot Coal manages to use a bankruptcy reorganization to rewrite its contract with the United Mine Workers union and discard such liabilities.

“I gave them 30 years of my sweat and tears,” says Elswick. “Had I not had the best health care in the world, I don’t know what would have happened.”

On Thursday, Elswick was among more than 3,000 miners, retirees and family members who turned out for a UMW briefing that kicked off the union’s “Fighting for Fairness at Patriot” campaign. A similar meeting on Tuesday in Evansville, Ind., drew a similar crowd, and union leaders say their campaign is just getting started.

“We are prepared to go to the mat over this,” UMW President Cecil Roberts told reporters after the closed-door meeting with union members. “This is an enormous challenge for the union.”

But one of the more interesting things to me was the mix of folks I ran into as the crowd streamed out of the closed-door UMWA meeting.

First, there was Roger Horton, a UMWA safety committee member who works for Patriot.  As many readers know, Roger formed a group called Citizens for Coal, and he works closely with the West Virginia Coal Association to promote the notion that environmental regulations are destroying the mining industry in West Virginia. He’s one of the more outspoken proponents of mountaintop removal.

Then, though, there was Chuck Nelson, a retired Massey/Alpha coal miner whose father is a Peabody Coal retiree whose pension and health-care benefits could be at risk in the Patriot bankruptcy. Chuck is active in the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and he’s a major opponent of mountaintop removal.

My guess is that Roger and Chuck don’t see some coal issues — mountaintop removal, government regulation — through the same lens. But they were both there to support the notion that coal operators should have to live up to their promises to workers and retirees.

Does anyone doubt that one thing the  people of the West Virginia coalfields desperately need right now is a way to find some common ground? A way to focus more on the things we share than the ways we see things differently?

As I’ve written here before, perhaps the UMWA’s campaign for justice at Patriot Coal is one place we could find some of these valuable commodities.