Coal Tattoo

In this April 2010 photo, a coal miner drives a scoop while working in the Tech Leasing and Rebuild Inc. Mine #1 in Buchanan County, Va. Once, coal miners were literally at war with their employers. (AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)

If you missed it yesterday, you really should take the time to read the epic story that Vicki Smith put together about the so-called “war on coal,” about the history of the industry, about its future — and what is driving that future — and, most importantly, about the people who are caught in the middle. Here’s how she started out:

Drive through the coalfields of Central Appalachia, and signs of the siege are everywhere.

Highway billboards announce entry to “Obama’s No Job Zone,” while decals on truck windows show a spiky-haired boy peeing on the president’s name.

“Stop the War on Coal,” yard signs demand. “Fire Obama.”

Only a few generations ago, coal miners were literally at war with their employers, spilling and shedding blood on West Virginia’s Blair Mountain in a historic battle for union representation and fair treatment.

Today, their descendants are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It’s fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy — the federal government — that has decided that coal is no longer king — or even noble.

Blame the president, the script goes. Blame the Environmental Protection Agency. And now that it’s election season, blame all incumbent politicians – even those who have spent their careers in a delicate dance, trying to make mines safer while allowing their operators to prosper.

Then, Vicki really nailed it with these two paragraphs:

The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

Let’s read that last sentence  again, especially you politicians:

It’s easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal — cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies — some kind of political or cultural “war” than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.

Further down in the story, Vicki gives us some voices of the people being left behind:

On a single day in September, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources closed eight mines in four states, announcing that, by early next year, about 1,200 jobs nationwide will be gone.

“That’s 1,200 people not going to the grocery store,” said Tracy Miller, a miner’s wife in Keokee, Va.

Not going to Walmart. Buying less gas. Postponing home improvements. Forgoing little luxuries like a dinner out.

Most of the first 400 cut were lucky; all but about 130 got transfers. Driving to a new job several hours away is hard, but it’s better than no job at all. For those truly out of work, options are limited. Logging, maybe. More likely, something in the service sector.

“But if there’s no coal mines,” Miller said, “there’s not going to be a dollar store, either.”

Coal remains the economic pillar of many Appalachian communities, the foundation of a mono-economy that political leaders have for generations lacked either the will or the ability to diversify.

Without coal, families can’t put food on the table or pay for the roofs over their heads.

The specter of losing it creates fear, frustration and anger.

“I’ve done a lot of praying, and my family’s done a lot of praying. We’ve literally been scared to death,” said Shana Lucas, whose husband, Trent, was among the lucky ones, transferred when the layoffs hit Wise, Va.

“I don’t think people understand the lack of job opportunities here,” she said. “Coal is the only thing we have here besides fast-food restaurants.”

A miner can make $30 an hour, plus overtime — as opposed to the $8 an hour in the service industry.

“They have worked so, so hard, and they are losing everything they’ve worked for,” Lucas said. “It’s devastation to this place that we love and to the men that we look at as heroes.”

In a Saturday Oct. 13, 2012 photo, Amanda McCracken, of Big Stone Gap, stands with her children, Kaylee, 6, and Pryston, 8, at Saturday’s United for Coal demonstration in support of her husband and their father, who is a coal miner.   (AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, Allie Robinson)

A truck passes a political sign in a yard in Dellslow, W.Va., on Oct. 16, 2012. Rhetoric about the administration’s alleged “war on coal” has come to dominate conversation this campaign season.  (AP Photo/Vicki Smith)

In the Sunday Gazette-Mail print edition, we ran Vicki’s story on the front page, packaged with a much more wonky story I did that tried to take a step back from the breathless campaigning talk about the “war on coal” and provide some context for the sorts of regulatory steps that the Obama administration has — and hasn’t — undertaken. Here’s how I started that piece:

The Obama administration’s moves to more strictly police the mining and burning of coal have been more modest — and in some ways far less successful — than they are portrayed by the industry’s public relations barrage and by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to regulatory experts who have closely followed the issues.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules to limit toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants were softened. A proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generators exempts existing plants altogether.

Labor Department plans for key miner safety and health improvements, including a centerpiece rule to prevent deadly black lung disease, continue to be delayed.

Efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal avoided concrete rule changes, a move that left the EPA open to legal challenge. The first-ever federal standards on handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from power plants have been stalled for more than two years.

“In the big picture, I don’t see a huge shift,” said Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental policy at the Vermont Law School. “I see an administration making some strides toward toughening the rules on coal, but I don’t see [President] Obama’s policies having a major impact.”

These are the kinds of stories that lots of folks don’t like to read, especially as emotions heat up with the approaching election. But folks who think that some out-of-control Democratic administration has done everything it could to stop all mining and burning of coal should give my story a read. And folks who seem to almost rejoice at the decline in the coal industry — who tweet with glee every time a power plant closes — should be sure to catch Vicki’s story, especially passages like this:

For the past 11 years, Kevin Spears has been a sought-after commodity — a young, healthy Caterpillar mechanic with nine mining job certifications and a willingness to work 60-75 hours a week.

However, he lost his job in April when his employer ran out of money to finish reclaiming a strip mine site.

Spears has since applied for 20 positions, with no luck. He used to make $80,000 to $110,000 a year, depending on overtime. With only a high school education, he earned more than a friend with a doctorate in psychology.

Today, he supports his girlfriend and three children on $1,660 a month in unemployment compensation.

“You give up everything. You cut down to the bare essentials — food, water, power,” said the 32-year-old from Pikeville, Ky.

Girlfriend LeAndra Conley juggles bills, deciding each week which to pay and which to postpone.

“This whole thing is crushing us,” said Conley, who’s going through a divorce and won’t move her daughters away from their father to Texas, where Spears was offered a $35-an-hour job.

“It’s not something you think is ever going to happen,” she said. “The coal was put here for us to use, and you can’t survive without it.

“There’s nothing else here, unless you want to work for a phone marketing company — and they only stay until their tax breaks expire, and then they pull out, too.”

Vicki also does a solid job of putting the coal industry’s history in context:

Coal helped build America. It powered steam engines on railroads that opened up the West. It fueled homes and factories. It made a lot of people rich and others comfortable. By the early 1900s, more than 700,000 men and boys worked in the nation’s mines, many for coal barons offering opportunity and brutality in equal measure.

The miners who resisted exploitation heled shape the principles of modern labor law: Pay by the hour. A week that lasts five days, not seven. Black men and white men paid the same.

Small towns sprang up along railroads and rivers that shipped the coal out. Miners were proud of their work, and still are. Today, though, fewer than 100,000 remain. Machines replaced many, while other jobs vanished as the fat, easily mined seams played out.

In describing the reasons for coal’s current decline, Vicki’s piece would have benefited from a direct quote or two from the many reports and expert analysts that have said clearly that a variety of other factors — low natural gas prices, declining quality of reserves, competition from other coal basins — play a larger role than EPA regulations in what is happening now in the coalfields of Appalachia. I mentioned two such reports in my Sunday story:

Writing in the peer-reviewed Electricity Journal in July, researchers from the think tank Resources for the Future concluded that low natural gas prices have had “a substantially larger impact” — five or six times greater — than new EPA regulations on coal’s decline.

Earlier this month, another report, by the economics firm The Brattle Group, concluded that additional coal plant retirements expected over the next four years are “primarily due to changing market conditions, not environmental rule revisions, which have trended toward more lenient requirements and schedules.”

Another thing that bothered me was this passage in Vicki’s story about President Obama, global warming, and his “bankrupt coal” comments that are so often taken out of context:

Barack Obama is an easy target. He armed his opponents during a 2008 campaign interview that touched on global warming.

“If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can,” he said. “It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

This could have used more explanation, to make clear why anyone would want to force power plants to control their greenhouse emissions. Too often, the magnitude of the problem we face with global warming is glossed over in local media coverage, which allows political leaders and the industry to promote the notion that this is some political or cultural war, rather than among the most serious global problems we face (see here, here and here).

Generally, along those same lines, Vicki’s story would have benefited from a few more graphs to describe the dangers that coal presents to the workers that mine it, the people who live near those mines, and everyone who lives downwind from coal-fired power plants. That’s a tough suggestion to make, because Vicki already produced a very long and detailed story, and I’m sure the thought of adding anything else would have her and her editors cringing.

But Vicki summarized environmental and public health concerns this way:

[EPA]  rolled out tough new air-pollution standards, some of which had begun under the previous, Republican administration. It vetoed a permit for a massive West Virginia mountaintop removal mine four years after it was issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, triggering a federal court battle that’s still playing out.

Also, the EPA cracked down on the permitting process for mountaintop mining, a highly efficient and highly destructive form of strip mining unique to Appalachia. The practice of flat-topping mountains, then filling valleys and covering streams with rubble has divided communities and led to multiple confrontations between coal miners and environmental activists.

And, she kind of pigeonholed concerns about coal’s impacts a little bit when she wrote:

Environmental standards are growing tougher as Americans outside coal country demand clean air and water.

Some of the folks who live in the Southern West Virginia coalfields would probably have wanted to point out here that they’re concerned about clean air and clean water — and that they’re especially concerned about the growing body of science that shows higher risks for serious illnesses, including birth defects and cancer, among residents who live near mountaintop removal sites. Public opinion polls also show clearly that coalfield residents support strong enforcement of things like the Clean Water Act, while also having pretty favorable views of coal companies.

Of course, that wasn’t really the story Vicki was writing here — and the story she did write adds much to trying to steer the debate over coalfield policies and this election into a more reasoned direction. But it might have been helpful, for example, to mention the recent Harvard University study reporting that fully accounting for coal’s costs in environmental and public health damage would triple its cost.

In the end, though, this was a pretty powerful story Vicki put together (certainly far better than a piece by another AP writer just a week earlier). Now, if somebody would just get a few of West Virginia’s elected officials to actually read it …