Coal Tattoo

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Photo by Vivan Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, flyover courtesy of Southwings.

Over the weekend, we broke the story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail about something that many insiders have known for a while: The Obama administration put the brakes on some key U.S. Geological Survey research into the public health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining in Southern West Virginia. As our story reported:

Two years ago, Bill Orem and his team of researchers were setting up air monitors in the yards and on the porches of residents in Artie, a small Raleigh County community surrounded by mountaintop removal mines.

Orem, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was trying to piece together evidence about exactly what caused residents who live near Southern West Virginia’s large-scale mining operations to face increased risks of serious illnesses, including birth defects and cancer, and of premature death.

Since starting their work, Orem’s team has added much to what was already known about the issue: Air quality in communities near mountaintop removal is quite different from air quality in non-mining areas, with more particulate matter and higher concentrations of certain contaminants. Mountaintop removal neighbors have higher rates of certain respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. Also, air pollution particles in mining communities show higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from “overburden,” or the rock that mountaintop removal operators blast apart to get at the coal underneath.

“The data is pretty startling for some of these things,” Orem said last week. “To me, it’s compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

However, if that more in-depth study is going to ever be done, it won’t be by Orem and his USGS team. Last year, the Obama administration quietly put the brakes on any new field work to gather data on the potential public-health threats posed by mountaintop removal.

Without warning, the USGS Energy Resources Program in February 2013 pulled its funding for the project. Agency managers diverted Orem and his team to research on the health and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia.

For those who still read the paper the old fashioned way, there was quite an interesting contrast between reality and politics on Sunday’s front page. At the top left was my story about the USGS bean counters ending this important research. At the bottom of the page was David Gutman’s story headlined, “As TV ads kick off in W.Va.’s U.S. Senate race, coal is still the theme.” David reported:

Tennant Power PlantWest Virginians have seen more ads for the Senate campaigns in neighboring states than the one happening in the Mountain State. That will begin to change Monday, but the primary tenor of the campaign — promises from both candidates to stand up for coal and fight Environmental Protection Agency regulations — will not.

Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has bought about $120,000 of television time to show an ad — the first from any candidate in the race — in which she, literally, turns the lights off at the White House.

The ad, which the Tennant campaign says will reach 75 percent of West Virginians, opens on a scene of the White House with Tennant asking, “Where do they think their electricity comes from?” The camera pans to power lines leading back to a coal-fired power plant.

“You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America,” Tennant says, as she cuts the power and the lights go out with a boom at the White House. “I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.”

Seriously, now, while I think the media generally pays far too much attention to campaign ads — allowing those ads, rather than independent questioning of candidates about important issues, to drive coverage — you really should watch this ad:

Here’s the complete text of the voice-over:

I’m Natalie Tennant, and I approved this message.  Where do they think their electricity comes from? You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America. I’ve fought to protect our coal jobs right alongside Joe Manchin, and I’ll stand up to leaders of both parties who threaten our way of life. I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.

I’m not sure if Secretary of State Tennant and her career campaign consultants have outdone Sen. Manchin’s Dead Aim ad, but certainly this is a pretty cynical effort to pander and another ridiculous move at trying to out pro-coal Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.  This kind of complete nonsense is exactly why West Virginians are so very far from being able to discuss coal and climate change issues with even the smallest bit of intelligence, reason, and forward thinking. It’s a shame that Natalie Tennant won’t show more leadership than this. She’s got a great opportunity to really move the conversation forward about the future of our coalfield communities, the urgency to act on climate change, and the desperate need to diversify our economy. Instead, we get an ad that comes straight out of the “Friends of Coal” playbook.

There are so many problems that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll take just two points.

First, this business about “who powers America.”  We all know that coal’s share of the nation’s electricity generation has dropped significantly, from more than half just a few years ago to 39 percent last year. Projections show continued coal production declines — even without the EPA carbon dioxide rules — here in West Virginia and the rest of Central Appalachia.

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But rather than focus her campaign on this painful fact, and on whatever ideas she has for dealing with the ongoing bottoming-out of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry and diversifying the economy, Natalie Tennant is perpetuating the myth that if only West Virginia leaders could undo the Obama administration’s somewhat mild approach to dealing with climate change, things in places like McDowell County will be booming again. It’s a shame that the West Virginia Democrats haven’t come up with a better campaign message than this in their effort to keep the Senate seat that Sen. Jay Rockefeller has held for so long.

Second, while this new Tennant ad is about climate change policy, I couldn’t help while reading David Gutman’s story about it but think about my story on the USGS research, and about this Gazette op-ed commentary a while back by Bob Kincaid of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency campaign:

Natalie Tennant, we’ve got to talk.

You’re going to lose.

I don’t know who’s giving you advice, but it’s not worth what you’re paying them. In a contest with a member of the Moore Family, you will NEVER out-pander to the coal industry. They are past masters.

Bob continued:

Here, then, is my offer in this Intervention: if you will only acknowledge the mere existence of the nearly two dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers indicating a serious health problem in the mountaintop removal zone, I will vote for you. I will do all in my power to encourage other voters of conscience to vote for you.

To be clear, I am not asking you to condemn mountaintop removal. I am asking you to acknowledge the existence of the scientific articles and the health crisis to which they point. Acknowledge the birth defects. Acknowledge the heart disease and cancer. Acknowledge the increasing rates of black lung on mountaintop removal sites.

Over the last few years, though, it’s been pretty tough to get Natalie Tennant to talk at all about mountaintop removal. When she was running for governor three years ago, she wouldn’t even respond to a question from the Gazette about the issue.

This time around, her Senate campaign’s “Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda,” doesn’t mention mountaintop removal.  The campaign website doesn’t list an issue section focused on public health and the environment.

Last month, I tried to ask Natalie Tennant about mountaintop removal.  My query went something like this:

There have been more than two dozen studies in the last six years that concluded that West Virginians who live near mountaintop removal mining face greater risks than other state residents in non-mining areas of serious illnesses, such as birth defects and cancer, and premature death. . If elected to the U.S. Senate, would Natalie Tennant agree to co-sponsor the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act in the Senate? If not, what specific legislation or appropriation would you propose or support to address the risks outlined in these studies?

Here’s the response I got from Tennant campaign spokeswoman Jenny Donohue:

The health and safety of West Virginia families is always Natalie’s number one concern. While the Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda is focused on job creation, Natalie also looks forward to continuing her conversation with West Virginians about how to strike the right balance between growing industry while the protecting private property rights, health and safety of West Virginia families. Natalie believes the EPA must be fair and consistent in reviewing mining permits. Retroactively vetoing permits after they have been granted has wide-ranging negative impacts on the jobs and livelihoods of West Virginians – from the mining jobs themselves to roads and infrastructure projects associated with them. Natalie will work with all stakeholders to develop consistent rules of the road moving forward that promote jobs and take the health and private property rights of West Virginia families into account.

I wasn’t really sure that answered my question, so I followed up, repeating my original question. Jenny Donohue sent me this email message:

Natalie does not support a blanket ban on all mountaintop mine permits at this time. The impacts of mountaintop removal are already under review. Natalie is watching that process closely. Natalie believes the EPA needs a fair and consistent process for reviewing permits that considers the jobs, roads and infrastructure mining brings along with impacts on local communities, including access to safe, clean water and long-term re-development plans for mining sites. Natalie does not support retroactively vetoing permits after they have been granted because it is unfair and has wide-ranging negative impacts on the jobs and livelihoods of West Virginians – from the mining jobs themselves to roads and infrastructure projects associated with them. Natalie will work with all stakeholders to develop consistent rules of the road moving forward that promote jobs while also protecting clean water and promoting the long-term business development of communities. 

Natalie was just in Mingo County last week meeting with the Redevelopment Authority, who shared their concerns that a delayed mining permit is holding up construction of a much needed road.

I don’t know about you, but I guess that answers my question. Study after study points to a public health problem in communities where mountaintop removal is occurring.  In our story on Sunday about the USGS dropping it research on the subject, we explained:

Since starting their work, Orem’s team has added much to what was already known about the issue: Air quality in communities near mountaintop removal is quite different from air quality in non-mining areas, with more particulate matter and higher concentrations of certain contaminants. Mountaintop removal neighbors have higher rates of certain respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. Also, air pollution particles in mining communities show higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from “overburden,” or the rock that mountaintop removal operators blast apart to get at the coal underneath.

The data is pretty startling for some of these things,” Orem said last week. “To me, it’s compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

In her new ad, Natalie Tennant proclaims that she will  “stand up to leaders of both parties who threaten our way of life.”  She doesn’t seem to want to talk about whether that “way of life” needs to include birth defects, heart disease, cancer and premature deaths.