Coal Tattoo

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles. Calling for a “new college compact,” Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, Aug. 10, will unveil a $350 billion plan aimed at making college more affordable and reducing the crushing burden of student debt. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

 

We certainly wrote a lot about it at the time she said it. That quote from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that was so taken out of context by the coal industry, Trump supporters and West Virginia political leaders (see here, here, here, here and here).

Now, more than 10 months after the general election, Clinton herself has a few things to say about that comment. There’s a whole chapter about it in her new book, “What Happened.” She called the chapter, “Country Roads” and said that it was the campaign comment that she regrets the most from the entire race:

Stripped of context, my words sounded heartless. Republican operatives made sure the clip was replayed virtually nonstop on Facebook feeds, local radio and television coverage, and campaign ads across Appalachian for months.

… The point I had wanted to make was the exact opposite of how it came out.

As Clinton recounts, she was answering a question about how she would win support from working-class whites who normally vote Republican. Here’s the full answer:

Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around politics that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? [That’s Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who was in the audience]

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.

In the book, she explains:

If you listened to the full answer and not just that one garbled sentence pulled out of it, my meaning comes through reasonably well. Coal employment had been going down in Appalachia for decades, stemming from changes in mining technology, competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, and cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, and a drop in the global demand for coal.

I was intensely concerned about the impact on families and communities that had depended on coal jobs for generations. That’s why I proposed a comprehensive $30 billion plan to help revitalize and diversify the region’s economy. But most people never heard that. They heard a snippet that gave the impression that I was looking forward to hurting miners and their families.

The book does a lot of blaming the media for all of this, and anyone who reads my blog (see here and here  especially) knows I don’t really disagree with that basic point.

But perhaps another reason that most people didn’t hear about the Clinton plan to save the coalfields is that she didn’t really talk about it that much. And, of course, others in her party — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin — want to just keep talking about coal, coal coal, as if the next boom is right around the corner. And Clinton is wrong to try to rewrite history to suggest that Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t propose his own coalfield rescue plan (see here). President Obama had such a plan, of course, but as we’ve discussed before, it was really too little and too late and wasn’t promoted nearly enough by Obama or any Democrats.

Continue reading…

Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

 

The first thing Monday morning, as we were all still trying to grasp what has been happening on the Gulf Coast of Texas, the press release came from Gov. Jim Justice:

Governor Jim Justice announced Monday that the Mountain State is prepared to send resources including West Virginia National Guard assets and personnel as needed in areas deluged by what has become Tropical Storm Harvey.

“West Virginia stands ready, willing and able to provide first responders to assist our fellow Americans in Texas and in other areas along the Gulf Coast as they continue to deal with the massive flooding and devastating damage being caused by Tropical Storm Harvey,” Governor Justice said. “I encourage all West Virginians to join Cathy and I as we pray for their safety and well-being.”

It was hard not to think about another quote from Gov. Justice, the one where he was commenting on what a nice, warm day it was when he took the oath of office back in January:

You know, it’s phenomenal to think about it. How could we have weather like this on this day?

Gosh, Governor. How could we possibly have had weather like that in January? Then, as now, Gov. Justice doesn’t have it in him to confront — or even admit — one of the most daunting challenges facing humanity. He’s not alone.

As there usually is when a coal miner dies a completely preventable death in West Virginia’s mines, there’s a lot of prayer going on among our state’s political leaders:

 

Continue reading…

President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

 

President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Here in West Virginia, the big political story over the last week has obviously been Gov. Jim Justice’s return to the Republican party.

Some of the media are of course very interested in promoting one of the governor’s reasons — this pretty far-out idea that the federal government is going to start subsidizing Appalachian steam coal production to the tune of $15 a ton.

There’s also a lot of interest in continuing to promote the sort of pandering that Gov. Justice (not to mention President Trump) are pushing that there’s a huge coal boom just around the corner. This is a comforting thought, both to state political leaders and to many of our fellow West Virginians. Just look at the last of those silly “Jim was right” press releases that Gov. Justice’s press office put out back while he was still a Democrat.

A huge coal boom would mean none of us would have to do the really hard work of building other kinds of economies in our coalfield communities — at least not right now. And it’s true that there has been an increase in coal jobs in West Virginia over the last three quarters. Taylor Kuykendall, the go-to guy among the media for these kind of numbers, explained last week:

Coal jobs in West Virginia are up 18.3% year over year in the second quarter, according to a new S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of federal data, and up about 12.2% compared to the fourth quarter of 2016. The year-over-year increase represents about 2,132 jobs, while the increase from the final quarter of 2016 represents about 1,493 jobs.

But keep in mind, if you go back further than the last few quarters, or a year-over-year comparison, the increase in jobs doesn’t come anywhere close to rebuilding the sort of coal-based economy that politicians would have you believe is going to reappear.  Data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows that West Virginia lost 13,000 coal jobs between the post-2000 high mark in the 4th quarter of 2011 and the low point in the 3rd quarter of 2016. Our state lost half of its coal-mining jobs in just that five-year period. We’ve only gained back a fraction of those. And the projections don’t suggest the jobs are going to keep coming back.

Continue reading…

Five things about President Trump and coal

 

FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

 

This evening’s visit to Huntington by President Donald Trump will undoubtedly involve the president talking up the coal industry and touting what he continues to insist is a major rebound that will only keep growing.

But here are some things to remember about President Trump and coal:

1.   Be wary of assertions or predictions (like this remarkably misleading boasting by Gov. Jim Justice) that another huge coal boom is underway or is just around the corner. Production actually dropped somewhat in the second quarter of this year. And while jobs are up a bit, much of this is in the highly volatile steel-making coal market, and most experts see little evidence that this is going to drive the sort of turnaround that many folks in the coalfields dream is coming.

2. While professing to just absolutely love coal miners, President Trump is overseeing what could be the start of a significant dismantling of many important safety and health protections for coal miners. His Labor Department is working out a settlement of an industry challenge to an important rule that toughened enforcement in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the recently announced regulatory agenda for the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration delays or drops some key rulemaking initiatives.

3. Coal mining deaths are up so far under the Trump administration. As of this morning, there have been 10 reported coal-mining deaths nationwide in 2017. That’s more than the eight mining deaths that occurred in all of 2016.  Meanwhile, the only new effort by MSHA to respond to this is one of those voluntary compliance assistance programs, a program that is drawing criticism from the United Mine Workers union.  And not for nothing, but the president still hasn’t appointed anyone to serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health.

UPDATED:  MSHA has confirmed this afternoon that another coal miner was killed on the job last evening in Colorado, pushing the number of fatalities this year to 11.

4. While the science continues to show serious environmental damage from coal-mining (and potentially grave threats to public health), the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle new standards aimed at reducing the impacts.  Getting rid of the Interior Department’s stream protection rule wasn’t enough, though. Just this week, as the administration prepared for the president’s trip to West Virginia, Interior was touting a move to streamline processing of new mining permits.

5. Black lung is a real worker health crisis in Appalachia.  NPR’s Howard Berkes continues to document this disaster (see here and here), but there is little response from policy makers and certainly not from the president who claims to care so much about coal miners.

ap_17152713058825

Well, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was the first into my email inbox with a statement praising President Donald Trump for abandoning any global leadership by the United States in fighting the climate crisis. Here’s what the congressman had to say:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw is a bold statement that he will put America first even in the face of intense international pressure. The Paris Climate Agreement is a flawed deal that puts America’s energy needs and economic growth on the back burner, while transferring money and power to unelected international bureaucrats.

Moving forward, the best way to lead on this issue is to prioritize energy research and promote new technologies that will allow countries around the world to use all their resources – including fossil fuels – in the cleanest and most efficient manner.

I urge President Trump to seize this opportunity and champion technology to provide affordable, efficient and reliable energy. This alternative approach will not only benefit America, but will help the billions around the globe who remain in energy poverty.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wasn’t far behind with this statement:

While I believe that the United States and the world should continue to pursue a cleaner energy future, I do not believe that the Paris Agreement ensures a balance between our environment and the economy.  To find that balance, we should seek agreements that prioritize the protection of the American consumer as well as energy-producing states like West Virginia, while also incentivizing the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.

To be fair, though, I think Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s statement hit Twitter before I saw either of those emails:

Today’s announcement is a major victory for working West Virginia families. My mission is to continue to fight against unlawful regulations that pose a threat to jobs and the success of the Mountain State.

I’m sure other West Virginia political leaders will follow with similar political pandering about the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. And they can talk all they want about how this is going to help the coal industry, and throw around phrases like “prioritize energy research” and “incentivize the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.” But the fact is that the Trump administration wants to gut government spending needed to make “clean coal” — whatever that is, exactly — any sort of reality.

Tons of journalists and scientists — and business people — who are way smarter than me have provided lots of discussion about the very real dangers that this move by President Trump poses to our society (see here, here and here for example).  There are also indications from some that the clean energy revolution is far from over, and that all hope for dealing with climate change isn’t yet totally lost.

Continue reading…

Miners get another week — then what?

Lawmakers and UMWA members held another press conference at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

UPDATE: HERE’S A STORY FROM THE GAZETTE-MAIL ABOUT FINAL ACTION BY CONGRESS ON THE UMW HEALTH-CARE BILL.

Word came out last night that the latest government funding bill does contain language to preserve health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retired United Mine Workers of American members and families … but this new “continuing resolution” would only protect those benefits for another week, through May 5, the term of the government funding resolution itself.

The press release from House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen , R-N.J., said:

This Continuing Resolution will continue to keep the government open and operating as normal for the next several days, in order to finalize legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon. It is time that this essential work is completed so that critical programs and activities – including national defense – are properly and adequately funded for the year.

Regarding the UMWA issue, the release added:

The legislation also extends the December CR provision for health care benefits for retired coal miners and their dependents for the length of this CR. This provision protects coal miners and their families from losing health care benefits.

For the UMWA’s retirees, and especially for those who understand the importance of the troubled pension plan that involves far more people — something like 89,000 current pensioners and another 29,000 who have vested in the program — this week-long extension is certainly a mixed blessing, and a potential source of more trouble. The concern for the union and its retirees at this point is that the additional time before a longer-term funding bill is approved gives some within the coal industry still more time to try to carve out some language for themselves. That’s because, as mentioned in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, some Republican lawmakers have an alternative plan:

The emerging GOP proposal, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair, would divert that money to provide health care benefits for retirees from profitable coal companies that already are providing that coverage.

Rep. Murphy hasn’t yet dropped his proposal as an actual legislative proposal yet, and it hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. But it was being promoted in some radio ads on stations in Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania over the last few weeks. The ads were funded by a group called the Secure Energy for America Association, which has close ties to CONSOL Energy — a company that has been trying to rid itself of the rest of its coal operations to focus on natural gas.

The UMWA’s concern is that, first, this proposal would relieve companies like CONSOL of their obligations to fund health-care benefits under the Coal Act and, second, it would do so by diverting the money that the union’s Miner Protection Act would use to stabilize the UMWA pension plan.

Phil Smith, the union’s spokesman, said this morning that the union is pleased to have its health-care benefits language in the short-term government funding bill, but remains concerned about where the broader issue could be headed, given the language that Rep. Murphy and some in the industry are pushing:

If it’s going to give Congress more time to come to a permanent solution for these benefits and pensions then that’s what it’s going to take. But we’re concerned that a segment of the coal industry appears to be trying to take away the most logical source of funding for pensions going forward just so they can pad their bottom line.

 

 

UMWA benefits extension down to the wire – again

Budget Battle

 

We should know perhaps as early as today how things are going to play for legislation aimed at protecting the health-care benefits and pensions for thousands of retired United Mine Workers of America coal miners at their families.

It seems a stretch at this point to think that when the House GOP leadership makes public the text of its version of the latest continuing resolution — a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown come Friday — that it will include a long-term fix for both the UMWA health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retirees and family members and language that would financially rescue the union’s troubled pension program, which covers 89,000 retirees currently receiving pensions and another 29,000 miners who have vested in the program.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., expressed confidence last week that a long-term fix for the health-care benefits alone could be worked out this week.

But it’s also possible that we may just see another kick-the-can-down-the-road temporary measure like the one that currently expires at the end of the month.

Stay tuned …

Wait – What did Capito say about climate change?

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily help millions of people who could lose federal health care subsidies should the Supreme Court annul the aid, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

 

Earlier this week, when President Trump issued his executive order on energy, there was such a flurry of statements from all manner of politicians and various special interest groups that it was hard to keep up. But there was one that stuck out. It came from EPA and was billed as, “What They are Saying About President Trump’s Executive Order on Energy Independence“:

Senator Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va)
With this Executive Order, President Trump has chosen to recklessly bury his head in the sand. Walking away from the Clean Power Plan and other climate initiatives, including critical resiliency projects is not just irresponsible — it’s irrational. Today’s executive order calls into question America’s credibility and our commitment to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. With the world watching, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have chosen to shirk our responsibility, disregard clear science and undo the significant progress our country has made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.

Wait, what?

Well, before anyone thinks that Senator Capito has come to her senses about climate change … within a little more than an hour, EPA had sent out a corrected press release with a different quote from the senator:

President Trump kept his promise to roll back one of the most harmful acts of overreach by the Obama administration – the so-called Clean Power Plan. If fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan would have completely decimated West Virginia’s vital coal industry while having no meaningful climate impact. Stopping this disastrous plan will preserve America’s coal industry, expand our manufacturing renaissance that is reliant upon affordable energy, and protect American families from unprecedented hikes in their electric bills. I was honored to join the president for the signing of this Executive Order, and I look forward to continuing working with the Trump administration to advance environmentally responsible policies that grow the economy – not kill jobs.”

This “corrected” EPA press release included a link to Sen. Capito’s own full statement on her Senate website, and a note saying “A draft released earlier today mis-attributed a quote from another senator to Senator Capito.

If you were wondering, that other quote from the initial EPA press release was what Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said about the Trump administration action.

 

Later today, the U.S. Senate will almost certainly vote to approve a resolution to block a last-minute Obama administration rule aimed at replacing the long-controversial stream “buffer zone” rule. The House passed the resolution yesterday afternoon. Once that resolution makes its way to the White House, President Trump will sign it.

Presumably, it won’t take long after that before all of the coal miners in West Virginia who have lost their jobs over the last few years will get called back to work.

Well, at least that is what coalfield political leaders, industry officials — and now the most powerful man on the planet — would have residents of places like Boone and Logan counties in West Virginia believe.

Here’s Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., during yesterday’s House floor debate on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement rule:

Simply put, it was President Obama’s attempt to drive a final nail into the coffin of an industry that made America great. Look, enough is enough. This war on coal has to come to a stop, and I think this election set the tone for that. Now that we finally have a President who understands the painful impact of excessive and unnecessary regulations,

It is time to give the families of the coalfields all across America a chance to get relief from the unelected bureaucrats in Washington.

Here’s Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., during that same floor debate:

Stopping this rule matters to West Virginians, to our miners, to our families, to our consumers. We produce 95 percent of our electricity from coal. It is reliable and it is affordable … My State can’t afford to lose any more jobs, and I know that goes for other coal States.

It fell to Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, to bring some reality into the discussion:

… If there is a war on coal, it is being led by the natural gas industry who produces a cheaper product at a lower cost. And if  there is any trouble that coal is in, it is directly attributed to the free market and that competition.

Continue reading…

TomblinAs he did with his last State of the State address a year ago, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today offered some straight talk about the future of our state’s coal industry:

While we all continue to hope that the coal industry will rebound, that hasn’t happened quickly and it likely won’t ever return to the levels that we once saw.

The governor continued:

We continue to work to diversify our economy and I know the improvements we’ve made will pay long-term dividends in job growth and investment.

Gov. Tomblin also touted his major effort at trying to diversify our coalfield communities:

It was here in this chamber, one year ago during my State of the State Address, where I announced plans for the largest development project in West Virginia’s history at the former Hobet surface mine site.

Since last year at this time, we have worked every day and we have made tremendous progress on this project, which is now known as Rock Creek Development Park.

We have worked with local landowners, who are generously donating land that will result in more than 12,000 developable acres for Rock Creek, which is the size of the city of Huntington.

Continue reading…

Manchin receives pension ‘assurance’ from Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

Here’s the latest from the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) today released the following statement on his conversation with President-Elect Donald Trump on securing healthcare for retired miners.

“Today, I spoke with President-Elect Donald Trump and he assured me that he will help fight to secure a permanent health care solution for our retired miners, as guaranteed in the Miners Protection Act. I look forward to working with him, his administration and my colleagues in order to keep America’s promise to our miners and make sure they receive the healthcare they have earned and deserve.”

Will President-elect Trump help retired coal miners?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Late last week, a group of Senate Democrats — led by West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin — took things down to the wire to try to squeeze a long-term fix for the troubled United Mine Workers of American’s health care and pension programs into an emergency government funding bill. They weren’t successful.

But as we reported on Friday night, Manchin is turning his attention on this matter to the future, saying he will push for President -elect Donald Trump to step in and make the UMW retirees a priority once the Republican takes office on Jan. 20.

Other West Virginia leaders are also making it clear they believe this issue needs a long-term solution. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said on Friday:

While it’s disappointing to see only a short term extension of benefits at this time, this issue was way too important to offer false hope and risk our miners walking away with nothing. This CR has now given us a chance to fight another day.  I have already spoken to members of House Leadership, incoming Chairman Frelinghuysen and incoming Chairwoman Virginia Foxx and received a commitment to work toward a long-term solution for healthcare and pensions early in the next Congress. It’s time to work together and give our miners peace of mind so they know their benefits won’t be jeopardized by politics.

And Sen. Manchin isn’t the West Virginia political leaders turning to President-elect Trump for help on this. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said late Friday night:

Preserving retirement benefits for our nation’s coal miners is among the most important and pressing items on the congressional agenda

Sen. Capito sent this letter to the President-elect, telling him:

Your recent election has provided hope in West Virginia communities. I look forward to working with you on policies that will help put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production. It is just as important that we act to preserve health care and pension benefits for retirees who have suffered from the down turn in the coal industry. I ask that you work with me and a bipartisan group of my congressional colleagues to enact the Miners Protection Act early in the 115th Congress.”

I’m not aware of any comments that the President-elect made about this issue during the presidential campaign. My request to the transition team for a comment on the matter hasn’t received a response.

Push continues for UMWA benefits fix

That’s the video of last evening’s press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, where Sen. Joe Manchin and other Democrats joined with United Mine Workers of America retirees to continue their push for a longer term legislative fix for the crisis facing tens of thousands of UMWA pensioners.

As we reported online yesterday (and in today’s print edition), the White House weighed in to point out the obvious irony in Republicans who control the congressional agenda not making this issue a bigger priority, while basking in electoral victories that they claim are largely the result of Democrats not caring about this nation’s working class.

Where things stand now is that the four-month extension of health-care benefits is in the “continuing resolution” that is meant to keep the federal government from shutting down late tonight. But that bill has nothing in it about the UMWA pension crisis, and union leaders say the four-month, $45 million in funding for health care benefits for more than 16,000 retirees just isn’t enough.

Now, Manchin and others are pushing for a one-year extension of health benefits, instead of the four-month extension, to be included in the spending bill. Stay tuned …

Trump: Getting the old band back together

FILE - In this July 17, 2016 file photo, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary, according to a Trump source. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

 

In this July 17, 2016 file photo, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary, according to a Trump source.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

It was certainly interesting to see Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s statement about President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao as his transportation secretary:

Elaine Chao is an excellent choice for transportation secretary. She is a trail blazer with a proven record of leadership. I enjoyed hosting Elaine in West Virginia during the Bush Administration and hope she will visit again in her role as transportation secretary to see why infrastructure is a top priority for the Mountain State.

When I heard about this particular cabinet pick, my own memories went back to the speech that Secretary Chao gave after 13 coal miners were killed in a massive series of underground explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama, in September 2001.

Of course, President-elect Trump has already nominated Wilbur Ross — who owned the Sago Mine when it blew up and killed 12 miners — to be his commerce secretary. And now Chao. It certainly takes those of us who follow mine safety issues back in time.

It was less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. Speaking at a memorial service in Alabama, Secretary Chao compared the efforts of a dozen miners who died trying to save a coworker to the heroic efforts of those firefighters and police officers who died trying to save 9/11 victims:

In the deepest darkness of these tragedies, we have also seen the best that America has to offer.

Then, Secretary Chao made a promise to the miners’ families:

Whether it be the terrorist attack on September 11 or the mine disaster that claimed thirteen lives this last weekend, we are determined to do everything we possibly can to keep it from ever happening again.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly what Chao did at Labor, or what the Bush administration’s pick to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Dave Lauriski, did either.  The Bush administration’s record on mine safety speaks for itself, really … After Jim Walter came Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon … Forty-one coal miners killed in those disastrous — and preventable — incidents alone.

The Bush administration had quietly stopped work on more than a dozen regulations aimed at improving mine safety, promoted budget cuts at MSHA, and encouraged regulators to regulate less and cooperate more with a highly hazardous industry with a history of death and disaster. The results eroded the ability of MSHA to protect the health and safety of miners, and a series of the agency’s own internal reviews reflected lack of resources and political will to do the job Congress had set out for its inspectors. MSHA was left unable to perform its most basic task — the mandated quarterly inspections of all of the nation’s coal mines.

I wonder why Sen. Capito didn’t mention any of that in her statement on Secretary Chao.

Jim Justice is all in with Trump’s coal con

West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice speaks to supporters at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., after winning the 2016 West Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Walter Scriptunas II)

 

West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice speaks to supporters at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., after winning the 2016 West Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Walter Scriptunas II)

If you missed it in today’s Gazette-Mail, you should click here and check out the brief story about Gov.-elect Jim Justice’s phone call over the weekend with President-elect Donald Trump:

West Virginia governor-elect Jim Justice and President-elect Donald Trump discussed their plans for the future of the coal industry in a 15-minute phone call Saturday. Justice and Trump’s conversation focused on creating coal jobs, tourism, and other job possibilities, according to a press release from Justice.

Here’s the full press release that was issued on Saturday:

Today, President-elect Donald J. Trump called Governor-elect Jim Justice to congratulate him on his victory, and to discuss how to revive West Virginia’s coal industry. The fifteen-minute phone conversation focused primarily on how the two could work together to put coal miners back to work.

The Governor-elect took the call during his Greenbrier East basketball practice. During the conversation, Justice also discussed West Virginia’s tourism and other job possibilities with the President-elect.

“It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work,” said Governor-elect Jim Justice. “President-elect Trump made it clear that he won’t forget about West Virginia when it comes to our nation’s energy policies. I will work closely with the President-elect and his administration on clean coal technology, rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal, and growing West Virginia’s other job opportunities.”

President-elect Trump asked Justice to pass along a message to the people of West Virginia: “We are going to get those coal miners back to work.”

Justice added, “President-elect Trump and I will work great together to bring new opportunities to West Virginia families. He also shared with me how much he cares about the people of West Virginia. Just as President-elect Donald J. Trump reached out to me, I am reaching out to Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to put aside party politics and pull the rope together to turn this state around.”

Let’s look at this part again:

The fifteen-minute phone conversation focused primarily on how the two could work together to put coal miners back to work … “It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work.”

We’ve written before in the Gazette-Mail (see here and here) and in this space (see here, here, here and here) about the aftermath of the presidential election and its implications for the West Virginia coal industry.

Continue reading…

Sago Mine owner eyed for Trump posts

sagocrosses1

 

There are multiple news reports (see here, here and here, just for example) this evening that President-elect Donald Trump is strongly considering venture capitalist Wilbur Ross as his nominee to be secretary of the Department of Commerce or secretary of the Treasury.

Readers in coal country may recall Ross as the man who really owned the Sago Mine, the International Coal Group operation in Upshur County where 12 coal miners died in a Jan. 2, 2006 explosion.

As we reported in the Gazette at the time:

wilbur-rossNew York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr. has controlled the company that owns the Sago Mine since at least early 2001, according to court records, corporate disclosures and other publicly available documents.

Ross began buying up Anker Coal Group in 1999, with the purchase of a one-fifth stake in the company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

By 2001, Ross had acquired 47 percent of the company – making him by far the largest shareholder, SEC records show.

One commentary this evening in The Nation spells out the development this way:

After campaigning as a champion of coal miners, Donald Trump is reportedly close to choosing for Commerce Secretary a New York billionaire who owned a West Virginia mine where a dozen miners were killed in 2006. Trump’s favored candidate, Wilbur Ross, also engineered buyouts that cost workers their benefits and their jobs. It’s a striking choice, considering Trump’s promises to improve the lives of coal miners and other working-class Americans.

The possibility that Ross would get a spot in the Trump team isn’t that surprising, given that Ross has been reported for a while to be one of the President-elect’s economic policy advisers.

It is worth pointing out that if he got either the Commerce or Treasury slot, Ross would not be in charge of coal mine safety and health regulation for the Trump administration. Folks who are concerned about those issues would obviously be better off watching to see who President-elect Trump makes Secretary of Labor — and then who exactly is chosen to by Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.

Is something like Sago too much baggage for Ross to become a cabinet secretary? Well, considering some of the other appointments already announced by the transition team, that seems pretty unlikely.

For the record, it’s certainly true that the Sago Mine didn’t exactly have a spotless safety record at the time of the deadly explosion — far from it, according to our stories published at the time (see here, here and here, just for example).

Interestingly, though, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, when it issued the report of its investigation of the Sago Disaster, did not list any of the many violations its inspectors found as having contributed to the deaths. A separate report by an independent team — led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — found plenty of blame to go around, noting failures by regulators and the company to ensure the safety of the Sago workers.

A confirmation hearing for Ross could give the Democrats in the Senate the opportunity to ask a few interesting questions … But then again, it’s not like either presidential candidate or the national media spent much time at all talking about worker safety and health during our nation’s just-completed presidential election.

FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

 

In this May 5, 2016 photo, coal miners wave signs as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

We’ve been discussing this week the things that President-elect Donald Trump simply isn’t going to be able to do for West Virginia’s coal miners, and the things that President Obama failed to do. So it seemed like a good idea to try to identify some things that the Trump administration could do for coal miners once it takes office in January.

So I asked Sam Petsonk, a mine safety lawyer with the non-profit firm Mountain State Justice, for some ideas. Here’s what he had to say:

America’s companies have often promised us that, if you work for a living, you will be kept safe and healthy at work and you will have some financial security once you retire. Yet, tens of thousands of miners all across the Appalachian Region are losing health insurance after becoming disabled or retired, and others are confronting safety and health challenges on the job if they are still in the workplace. So, the new presidential administration faces serious challenges in assuring that companies keep those promises to coal miners—both for active workers and for retirees whose healthcare benefits are terminated or denied.

Will our companies and government leaders keep the promise to America’s workers and seniors?

This is an essential question for us to be asking. Coal miners have educated me about several increasingly important challenges as we have advocated together on workers’ and retirees’ rights over the past decade.  Here are some of those challenges, and some steps that the new administration could take to address them.

First, coal companies are laying off underground maintenance crews as a way to save money during a downturn in the market. Failing to provide basic levels of safe staffing at underground mines can cause major ventilation problems and other life-threatening hazards.  When operators fail to employ ‘outby’ maintenance crews or additional workers to hang ventilation curtains, the remaining workers often find that they do not have enough time to perform all the necessary work to keep the mine safe and productive. We have long relied upon these maintenance crews to keep our mines safe and healthful. Cutbacks on maintenance can cause a mine to lose control of its ventilation system, or to fail to identify and to clean up roof falls and dust accumulations. It takes a good bit of time to maintain the ventilation systems (repairing or plastering stoppings to prevent air leakage, and maintaining other ventilation controls, etc.). It takes more time to conduct comprehensive preshift examinations and other safety-sensitive tasks.

In many mines, the firebosses or preshift examiners cannot be relied upon to accomplish all of their firebossing tasks as well as to make up for non-existent outby maintenance crews. There is not enough time, and critical tasks will be short-changed. These are serious concerns because inadequate maintenance of ventilation structures can cause a lethal mixture of methane gas and coal dust—especially in sensitive areas like dead-air zones and methane mixing chambers. These concerns are also especially acute on a so-called “supersection” where there are two continuous mining machines on a single stream or “split” of air.  In that setting, twice as much dust is generated and the need for full staffing is therefore greater.

If the market picks up again, perhaps companies will start hiring back those maintenance crews and necessary helpers on supersections.  But in the meantime, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) can take important steps to assure adequate maintenance. For instance, coal mine operators are currently required to maintain roof control and ventilation plans for their mines. MSHA has the power to mandate that the roof control and ventilation plans provide for more frequent maintenance of ‘outby’ areas, so that stoppings are regularly plastered, spillages and falls are promptly cleaned up, and maintenance crews cannot be laid off.  As for supersections, MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main has stated that best practices for staffing a supersection include a total of 16 miners: 1 foreman; 2 continuous miner operators; 2 continuous miner helpers that are also responsible for ventilation curtains; 4 shuttle car operators; 2 scoop operators; 4 roof bolter operators and 1 mechanic. This does not include outby maintenance crews, such as stopping builders or supply haulage positions (i.e., miners who are not regularly assigned to work at the mine face).  MSHA can also work with the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training to include similar requirements in the comprehensive safety plans that West Virginia coal operators are required to maintain.

Second, black lung has been on the rise for years, and MSHA should continue addressing that problem by reducing coal miners’ exposure to all forms of breathable coal mine dust (both coal and silica dust)—including by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners to work downwind from the active cutting of coal.  The promise to end the advanced forms of black lung disease has long been a basic tenet of America’s law and policy for coal miners. But miners report that companies routinely force roof bolt crews to spend hours each night drilling into the mine roof while downwind from active mining machines, in flagrant and intentional disregard of the lethal dust exposure for those downwind miners.  It is no surprise that we have a new surge in advanced black lung disease in the twenty-first century when we allow coal operators to treat miners in this fashion.

Every miner (non-union and union alike) has the right to complain to management about working in dusty conditions downwind from active mining machines in what is known as “return air.”  A growing number of miners are exercising that right, and are outright refusing to work in such conditions.  I routinely speak with and represent young men in their thirties or forties who have already worked as roof bolters for over fifteen years in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Several of them have banded together to refuse to operate their roof bolt machines in return air at such mines as the Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County, and others.  These miners are demonstrating that it is possible to run good coal and not expose miners to toxic levels of dust.

Despite the courageous efforts of a growing number of miners who are banding together and refusing to bolt in return air, additional action by MSHA is necessary in order to prevent companies from pressuring miners to resume working in return air. MSHA can stop this practice altogether by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners (roof bolters, buggy men, or anyone) to work downwind while a machine is actively cutting coal on a section.  No miner should have to stand for hours just a few feet from a continuous mining machine, breathing unfathomable amounts of highly-toxic coal and silica dust.  MSHA has the power to outlaw that type of work practice.

Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Joe Main, MSHA has taken some very important first steps to address the issue of black lung, such as reducing the permissible exposure limit and mandating better dust monitors. MSHA recently introduced a new generation of dust control technology via the continuous personal dust monitors. These new dust monitors are empowering miners with real-time information about dust exposure. Dust control is a major challenge nationwide, but especially in Central Appalachia, where miners are often forced to work in highly-toxic sandstone and silica dust, mixed with coal dust, in order to access the thin-seam coal reserves that are still left over for mining in this region. The new dust monitors are helping miners to avoid toxic dust exposures that can cause early onset of black lung in young miners.  But the monitors alone may not halt the surge of black lung if the new administration does not take additional steps to strengthen enforcement and eliminate acute dust exposure in “return air” downwind from active mining.

Continue reading…

President Barack Obama listens to questions during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Barack Obama listens to questions during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Yesterday’s post, “President-elect Trump’s coal con,” got a fair amount of attention and it is indeed a topic that deserves to be talked about by everybody who cares about the coalfields and about our state’s politics.

But it’s worth remembering that the political climate at any place at any particular time doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. The climate is created, by things that human beings (like candidates, party chairs, the media, votes) can control and by things they can’t control.

In West Virginia, the political climate didn’t just suddenly become anti-Obama and anti-EPA to the extent that it has become so. It took years of hard work by Republican activists, career campaign consultants, and coal industry public relations people. The truth is, though, that many Democrats — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin, haven’t forgotten that awful ad where you shot the cap-and-trade bill — gave the industry and the Republicans plenty of help along the way.

Still, if you’re one of those West Virginia Democrats who wants to blame various election results on those awful people from the national party you belong to, it is worth trying to think about what really you should be focused on in that regard. Really, what that all goes back to is a little statement buried in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release way, way back in 2009. At the time, EPA was announcing a bit of a crackdown (it was never really much of a crackdown) on mountaintop removal coal-mining. Here’s what it said:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

Sounds great, right? The problem is, the Obama administration didn’t really get moving with a broad and detailed plan for any of that sort of thing until about six years later — in 2015, President Obama’s next-to-last-year in office. In 2015 and again this year, the White House included a major coalfield aid package in its budget proposal to Congress.

Continue reading…

President-elect Trump’s coal con

A group of coal miners wave signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they wait for a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

We had another story over the weekend examining what the outcome of last week’s presidential election might mean for West Virginia’s coal industry, and more importantly for the coalfield communities that are hurting in the wake of mining’s inevitable decline.

At the same time, there were remarkable reports out of both of the major papers in Kentucky that are worth reading.

First, here’s the Courier-Journal:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hedged on Friday about when and if Republicans would be able to bring coal mining jobs to Kentucky, saying that is a “private sector activity.”

“We are going to be presenting to the president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said. “Whether that immediately brings business back, that’s hard to tell because this is a private sector activity.”

And there’s this even more remarkable line from the Herald-Leader:

 The interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association was more direct about the future of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.

“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”

So, basically, all those politicians and industry officials and career campaign consultants who spent most of the campaign trying to convince the hard-working people of the coalfields that another boom would be just around the corner … Well, I guess we were supposed to take them seriously, but not literally.

Long Walk Home: What’s next for West Virginia?

 

President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/John Locher)

 

President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Well, this happened:

Donald John Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday in a stunning culmination of an explosive, populist and polarizing campaign that took relentless aim at the institutions and long-held ideals of American democracy.

The surprise outcome, defying late polls that showed Hillary Clinton with a modest but persistent edge, threatened convulsions throughout the country and the world, where skeptics had watched with alarm as Mr. Trump’s unvarnished overtures to disillusioned voters took hold.

The triumph for Mr. Trump, 70, a real estate developer-turned-reality television star with no government experience, was a powerful rejection of the establishment forces that had assembled against him, from the world of business to government, and the consensus they had forged on everything from trade to immigration.

The results amounted to a repudiation, not only of Mrs. Clinton, but of President Obama, whose legacy is suddenly imperiled. And it was a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.

It seems like a long time since Monday evening, when I was flipping around on the television and landed on C-Span, which was showing Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the big Clinton campaign rally at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. One of the songs he did was “Long Walk Home,” which goes something like this:

In town I passed Sal’s grocery, barbershop on South Street
I looked in their faces, they were all rank strangers to me
Hey Veteran’s Hall high upon the hill stood silent and alone
The diner was shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said “gone”

It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home

Here in West Virginia, the state race was called for Trump literally just moments after the polls closed last evening. Trump’s victory here has long been a foregone conclusion. But looking back now not just at the ultimate result in the Electoral College, but more specifically at the votes of my fellow West Virginians, that song strikes a chord.

The West Virginia that embraces so much fear and hatred isn’t the one I grew up in and continue to try to make a life in and help, in some small way, to improve. I just don’t recognize it. Maybe my heart won’t let me. Maybe I’m blind. I suspect that many West Virginians, including some Republicans, who didn’t vote for Trump feel the same way.

But, I’m also certain that part of the reason that so many West Virginians threw in with Trump is that the West Virginia that’s in front of their eyes doesn’t necessarily look that familiar to them — and really, the country may not look or feel that familiar to them anymore, either. Questions about the nation’s growing diversity and West Virginia’s general lack of diversity, and how that affects our voting patterns, are a bit far afield for this blog, but there’s also something here that relates to our complex relationship with the coal industry that we should all try to think about.

The struggles and pain for families in somewhat isolated pockets of our state where coal has long been the lifeblood — good paying jobs for generations who might not have gone to college, but are hardworking, smart and resilient — is very real. Thousands of coal jobs have disappeared in just a few short years. And most experts provide little if any hope that they’re coming back, despite an expected slight uptick in the met coal market.

What’s emerged though, is an identity politics that’s driven by the coal industry narrative that goes deeper than the much-discussed and highly successful campaign to convince people that the coal industry’s troubles are almost entirely caused by President Obama and his EPA, that Hillary Clinton would continue those policies, and that another president — maybe Donald Trump — would put a stop to that, bringing another huge coal boom that would rescue mining communities.

This deeper narrative, perpetrated by career campaign consultants, isn’t just that coal is West Virginia. It’s that coal is all there is to West Virginia. Too many of us have become convinced not just that coal has been a way of life here for many families and communities, but that it’s the only possible way of life for those same families and communities.  This narrative has been used to stoke fear — fear of the future and of the unknown, fear of outsiders and of the entire outside world, fear of a president with a funny name who doesn’t look like most of us, and fear of a “nasty woman” we already weren’t sure we trusted.

Continue reading…