Gov. Tomblin steers clear of key coal issues

February 14, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va. W (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Last evening, as West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin delivered his State of the State address, a family up in Marion County was suffering, in the aftermath of our state’s latest coal-mining accident.  The last we heard publicly, Glen L. Clutter Jr., 51, of Baxter, was in critical condition and on life support. He suffered severe head trauma while trying to get a mine car back on the rails at CONSOL Energy’s Loveridge Mine near Fairview.

Gov. Tomblin didn’t mention Mr. Clutter. And he didn’t make room in his speech for the two West Virginia coal miners who died on the job in the last week (see here and here). Instead, the governor included a pretty generic, though accurate, statement about our state’s coal miners:

The dedication of coal miners is the work that built our State and the work that sustains it.

But that praise for hard-working miners was just a pretext for the governor to get to what he really wanted to talk about:

We also cannot forget an industry that has been an integral part of West Virginia-and that is our coal industry. This industry continues to enable West Virginia to be a national leader … I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry.

First of all, I’m not sure how the governor can continue to insist that West Virginia is a “national leader,” when our state ranks near the bottom of most measures of community health, well-being and quality of life. The governor said so himself, when he outlined the reasons for his proposed changes to our educational system:

Even with all the good things happening in our schools our student achievement is falling behind-and that is not acceptable.

Education Week, in its annual survey, Quality Counts, gave us an F for student achievement, ranking us 49th nationally. That is not acceptable.

The only true national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, ranks us below the national averages in 21 of 24 categories, and many of our scores have slipped lower over the past decade. That is not acceptable.

Our graduation rate is only 78 percent which means almost 1 in 4 high school students do not graduate on time. That is not acceptable.

We have the highest percentage of young people ages 16 to 19 not engaged in school or the workforce. That is not acceptable.

Next, as we reported in this morning’s Gazette, a number of people I spoke with last evening after the speech week were kind of surprised that the governor didn’t mention coal and energy a bit more in his speech, if only to continue his standard cheer-leading for the extractive industries. Most telling, of course, was the governor not talking about any of the pressing challenges that are really facing our coalfield communities: Mined-out reserves, competition from other coal basins, low natural gas prices — not to mention the environmental and public health damage from mountaintop removal.

But you really might have thought that the governor would have said more about coal-mine safety, if only to make up for his remark after a mining death last year that “accidents do occur,” or to promise improvements over his administration’s fumbling in implementation of his own mine-safety legislation (see here, here, here and here). Sure, the governor did make clear that he’s exempting the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training from budget cuts, but that alone is hardly going to cure that agency’s critical shortage of inspectors.

But acknowledging the lives that coal claims goes against the narrative that Gov. Tomblin, other West Virginia political leaders, and the industry’s lobbyists constantly promote: That coal is the backbone of our state’s economy, an indispensable fuel for the nation’s energy mix, and an industry that is unfairly attacked by EPA and by a president who doesn’t look like he’s from around here. Coalfield political leaders, for the most part, acknowledge that coal kills workers only when they are forced to, when a major disaster claims large numbers of lives in one fell swoop.  Even then, these leaders try hard to turn the page quickly, and move on to the things, before anyone thinks too much about what happened.

To admit too clearly and publicly the downsides of coal, and the challenges our coalfield communities now face, would mean being forced to offer proposals for reform — to diversify the economy or cut down on the needless death, illness, and environmental damage — or to be made to concede not having any real ideas for dealing with such long-term, entrenched problems.

But since so much of the governor’s speech last night rightly focused on West Virginia’s troubled educational system, there are two things related to the coal industry that are hard to ignore.

First, there’s all this talk about how coal is West Virginia’s “way of life,” and how any effort to reduce damage from mining will rob our state’s children of their future. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with being a coal miner. It’s an honest and honorable way to make a living and support your family — and it’s true that mining coal provides our society with valuable things we all want and need: Electricity and steel. But what kind of message does it send our children when political leaders make out like that’s really the only future available? While it’s fine if a kid from Logan or Boone or Mingo counties wants to grow up and be a coal miner like their father and their grandfathers, shouldn’t we be encouraging kids to find their own futures, to dream and to work toward those dreams, instead of constantly making out like coal is the only possibility for them?

Second, if we’re really concerned about our kids learning things like science, what kind of example does it set for political leaders to constantly reject science, by ignoring or disputing the overwhelming evidence about global warming and coal’s role in the climate crisis? If Gov. Tomblin is going to talk about last June’s derecho — “a storm like no other we’d ever experienced before” — shouldn’t he also acknowledge the role climate change plays in extreme weather events, and somehow encourage the state to begin coming to grips with this issue?

Gov. Tomblin spoke eloquently last night about our beautiful Capitol building, and about how its design was intended to signify “the natural wealth found in the people of West Virginia.”  And, the governor proposed progressive programs to help begin to improve the lives of so many of our children. But Gov. Tomblin again passed up a chance to help West Virginia confront some of our most difficult challenges, and start to truly “embrace the future.

11 Responses to “Gov. Tomblin steers clear of key coal issues”

  1. Steve says:

    If we are not a “national leader” it has nothing to do with coal. It has to do with smoking and drinking and poor diet and lack of exercise and lack of self discipline and self respect. Those issues have nothing to do with coal.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Steve,

    Just so everyone is clear … the peer-reviewed studies that have linked health problems in West Virginia to living near coal-mining operations draw those conclusions with other variables — family history, smoking, other health issues you mention — taken into account. Even if you account for those variables, there are still health disparities that are associated with coal mining communities. Here’s a link to just one of the papers that have addressed this issue, http://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=jhdrp

    So, Kate Long’s excellent Gazette series aside, there are still relationships between coal-mining and West Virginia’s poor rankings on a variety of measures of well-being that can’t be accounted for only by this “lack of self discipline and self respect” that you mention.

    Ken.

  3. Steve says:

    Show me where the reports and studies offer the expert opinion to a reasonable degree of certainty that mountain top removal causes the health problems and poor rankings. They don’t. Yet you and others Ken pass those studies off as evidence of causation when they simply don’t say that. Heck, using those causation standards one must conclude that being LGBT in west Virginia causes one to smoke 17.1 percent more than the national average. (See Lori Kersey’s article in your paper this morning)

  4. Soyedina says:

    Steve is demanding a complete account of every particle and molecule in the system before he can be confident about inferring the probability of causality in phenomena that have been correlated in multiple independent studies.

    Well, with a belief like that it is no wonder that he is dissatisfied with science.

    Note that he doesn’t offer any alternative mechanisms, information or analysis, only hooting “unh-unh” from the rafters. The term for this is, I believe, “fake skeptic”.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Steve,

    A couple of points …

    First, I have absolutely not “passed off those studies as evidence of causation.” In fact, my reporting has done the exact opposite of that.

    For example, read the comments section of this blog post, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2011/07/27/new-study-finds-higher-cancer-rates-near-mountaintop-removal-sites-along-coal-river-valley/ where I discuss the erroneous reporting by others in the media about that particular study.

    Or, read the story about one of the Hendryx papers, http://wvgazette.com/News/MiningtheMountains/201107271037 in which I make clear:

    “The study, published in the Journal of Community Health, does not say mountaintop removal caused the increased cancer rates. ”

    So, if you want to have a reasoned discussion, then let’s have it around what I have written, not your imagined idea of what I’ve written.

    Next, you are attempting to impose a standard here that is inappropriate to the context … While the standard of a “reasonable degree of scientific certainty” may be appropriate in some contexts in civil litigation that seeks damages from one party for harm to another, that’s not what we’re talking about here.

    A more appropriate standard is the precautionary principle, which would hold that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of harming the public or the environment, then in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or the policy is harmful, the burden of proof to show that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

    Ken.

  6. Steve says:

    Ken, it is undoubted in my view that your writing style leads the ill informed to assume causation when it doesn’t exist. You know that most people only read the first few paragraphs of an article. Your continued use of phrases such as ” growing evidence” per your blog post of 2/12 leads one to assume causation. Then you bury the truth well into the article. I consider that passing the article off as causative. How bout this, next time lead off an article about the hendrYx study as follows ” wvu study cannot conclude that MTR causes hea
    Th problems”

  7. Soyedina says:

    “Undoubted in my view”

    😀

    Steve, according the cognitive model you are working from, we can never infer causation from any amount of evidence. So, why even bring that up?

  8. Steve says:

    And soyedina I am not demanding a complete accounting of every molecule. But when I read a study like the one cited by ken above and it’s obvious that on the point to be proved one could just as easily substitute “poplar trees” every place the words mountain top removal appears I get a bit skeptical. After all poplar trees are the most abundant tree species in west Virginia. I don’t have a cite for that but I did read it years ago. I am out of here off to do business in Richmond va. Everybody have a good weekend and perhaps we can continue our discussion next week.

  9. Soyedina says:

    Steve your claim that “it could as well be poplar trees” can not possibly be true and I am skeptical that you are suggesting it in good faith.

    Tulip poplar, as you note, is widespread over the state. (see here for a rough map of the geographic range of this species)

    These public health events are clustered near surface mining, not evenly distributed across the state or across the geographic range of tulip poplars.

    I refer once again to the guide to “How to be a fake skeptic” as the best heuristic for understanding your comments here.

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    All,

    I would tend to agree with Soyedina’s analysis about “how to be a fake skeptic” … I’m not sure that Steve is really making the most meager effort at reasoned discussion, and is really simply throwing out nonsensical stuff — the poplar tree comment — in order to bluster his way toward something resembling a response to the science here.

    So we’ll close this comments section, and hopefully when Steve returns he’ll be a little more thoughtful in his future comments.

    Ken.