Coal Tattoo

Gov. Tomblin steers clear of key coal issues

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.