Coal Tattoo

President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One prior to his departure from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. Obama is returning to Washington after wrapping up a 4-day west coast swing. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

There I was in Judge Berger’s courtroom again on Friday, as the criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship continued. Former Massey official David Hughart was on the stand. He was being cross examined by defense attorney Blair Brown. And Brown finally got in the question Blankenship’s team has been dying to ask Hughart:

Okay. The day before your meeting, your February, 2012, meeting with Mr. Ruby and Mr. Goodwin and Agent
Lafferty you were, in fact, detained after you had purchased drugs; correct?

Hughart admitted this was true, and that he had spent more than $4,000, giving the money to a confidential informant in exchange for 120 Opana pills.  Blankenship himself has thrown Hughart’s drug problem back at him, and I’ve noticed at least one member of the Friends of Don Blankenship complaining the media hasn’t given enough attention to this issue in covering the trial.

But under re-direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg McVey, Hughart told a little more of the story about how he came to be a drug addict:

I was injured once in the mines and was on medication. And then my injury flared back up and I was prescribed medication. And it went on for a period of four or five, six months of taking that medication and I just become addicted to it.

Right now in West Virginia, it’s hard to escape the problems that drug addiction causes. It’s everywhere and affects everyone. Likewise, it remains difficult to divorce just about anything in West Virginia — the good, the bad, the promising, the challenging — from our complicated relationship with the coal industry.

So it’s inevitable, I guess, that tomorrow’s visit to Charleston by President Obama — an event focused on drug abuse — has also become yet another public relations battle over coal’s past, current and most of all future, role in our state.

The Friends of Coal — an industry front group — is encouraging its supporters to attend a rally at the state Capitol to show their opposition to the President and his policies. Rep. Evan Jenkins indicated in an op-ed on the Daily Mail’s page today that he’s all-in on the anti-Obama strategy.  Over at MetroNews, Hoppy Kercheval tried hard not to go quite that far in his own commentary urging residents to welcome President Obama.

Not surprising, ignored in all of this are the many and complicated factors that play into the ongoing decline of the coal industry in this region — and the hard, cold fact that stopping various Obama EPA initiatives simply isn’t going to suddenly prompt another coal boom here.  It’s all about Obama and his “war on coal.”

Then there are those in the environmental community that want to turn the President’s visit into a chance to criticize the administration for not doing enough to stop the damage being done to mountains, streams, and people by mountaintop removal coal-mining.

I understand the need for those leading campaigns for change to take advantage of situations when they arise, to get more attention — from the press, the public and politicians — for their issues. But at what point does doing that make one seem overly opportunistic or hopelessly myopic?

The economic struggles faced by coalfield communities right now are very real and very important. They deserve serious thought, serious talk and serious action. The environmental damage being done — both the coal communities and to our planet’s climate — is also real and deserves the same thought, talk and action.

But does every event have to circle back to one’s own personal crusade? Can’t we make time for other issues too?

Sure, there are some potentially important connections between the coal industry and our state’s drug problems.

I’m far from an expert on the issue. But it seems to be generally agreed by everyone that poverty doesn’t help fix the drug problem and almost certainly makes it worse.  Will anyone really argue that the current economic troubles in the coalfields make it harder for those communities to dig themselves out of their drug problems?

Of course, there are also connections between drug abuse and the state’s long-standing reliance on heavy industry for jobs and economic growth. As David Gutman wrote in a must-read Sunday Gazette-Mail piece:

Person after person interviewed for this report mentioned those job-related injuries as a reason why pain killers grabbed hold of Appalachia first.

The painkillers came here, in essence, because there were people in pain.

“West Virginia was ripe for the picking,” Sullivan said. “We had a lot of blue-collar workers who were in farming and timbering and coal mining and things that were likely to produce injuries.”

Temple said the same thing, and noted that a lack of health care providers in coal communities, back in the 1990s, helped pills spread as well.

“In a mining camp, there aren’t a lot of doctors,” he said. “That doctor is going to be more likely to opt for the quick fix and give people pills to fix their pain and get them back into the mine, rather than give them rest or therapy or those things that can actually cure pain.

“There sort of emerged a culture of trading pills.”

We’ve talked about this connection before — although very briefly — here on Coal Tattoo.

Not only are there connections between our people being employed in — and injured in — the coal industry and the rise in drug abuse, but there are also concerns that in trying to get drugs out of dangerous workplaces, state officials have not done enough to help workers who become addicted get the help they need. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety bill was not helpful in this regard, and the governor has in the past ignored the advice of his own experts who suggested raising taxes on alcohol and tobacco might be a good way to help fund more drug-abuse treatment.

Not for nothing, but the push for drug testing of our state’s coal miners was the first real political reaction to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, despite there being no connection at all between drugs and the cause of that explosion and the resulting 29 deaths. Meanwhile, the defenders of Don Blankenship want to try to dismantle a witness in the criminal case against him by saying he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against the former CEO to avoid more serious charges brought on by his drug addition.

Meanwhile, West Virginia leaders continue to do all they can to not assist in the passage of important programs that might help improve the economy in coalfield communities, ease the pain of coal’s decline, and plan for a better future for everyone (see here and here).

It’s hard to imagine that any of this is going to get us anywhere.