Coal Tattoo

A different kind of coalfield discussion

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 in Washington, they had another one of these congressional hearings that beltway insiders thrive on about coal and climate and economics.

West Virginia’s own Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was there, chairing the meeting of a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meeting called, “The Impacts of EPA’s proposed Carbon Regulations on Electricity Costs for American Businesses, Rural Communities and Families.” Sen. Capito opened the hearing by saying:

I am not exaggerating when I say almost every day back home in West Virginia, there are new stories detailing plants closed, jobs lost, and price increases … It is important to note that all electricity has to come from somewhere. In many states, odds are that it is being imported from a state that relies on coal.  But no one is talking about that. 

While Sen. Capito was leading this hearing, a relatively small, but dedicated bunch of officials from various government agencies were meeting back home in West Virginia. Here’s the lead of the story I wrote about that meeting:

A team of Obama administration officials visited West Virginia this week to promote new programs and proposals to help struggling mining communities and hear about ongoing efforts by a variety of local groups to diversify coalfield economies.

Representatives from the White House and a half-dozen agencies met with economic development officials from state agencies and with a long list of local and regional non-profit organizations for a briefing on President Obama’s proposal to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in coalfield aid as part of his 2016 budget recommendation to Congress.

About 75 people who attended the meeting at Hawks Nest State Park also heard about additional money available through an ongoing companion initiative to provide federal help for local economic development planning and project implementation in communities around the country hit by layoffs as part of the coal industry’s downturn.

Now, a lot of this meeting focused on the ins-and-outs of the Obama programs, and the details of grant application rules and, frankly, a lot of stuff that, while not very sexy, plays a huge rule in how non-profit groups and others can go about creating bottom-up change in our society.  And, a lot of it also highlighted the growing efforts that go on — often without headlines, at least here in Charleston — of local citizens and leaders to try to build stronger communities in our coalfields. The first lesson I learned at this meeting is how much those of us who live in the state Capitol need to do more to understand and encourage such efforts.

But the first thing I saw when I got back to Charleston and started browsing the news was the headline from Inside Climate News: Aid Package for Coal Country Goes Ignored by Congress. They reported:

A massive $3 billion package to help struggling coal communities transition to a new economy is sitting unappropriated in the Republican-led Congress. And lawmakers are saying little—at least publicly—about if and how they ever plan to support it.

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Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican,  Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

It’s obviously no secret that most West Virginia leaders would just rather not talk about global warming  and the coal industry’s role in the climate crisis. But you would have thought that maybe … just maybe, hearing more than a few words from the Pope on these matters would make the usual suspects be quiet and listen. Doesn’t look like it.

Take the statement issued by West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney:

… There are many reasons for these improvements, but none, perhaps as vivid, as the electrification of parts of our world, which came most successfully with the continued and improved use of fossil fuels.  I am concerned the Pope does not acknowledge that with his challenge to all of us to improve the way we use the indigenous resources our Lord has blessed us with in this world …

I wish Pope Francis would have traveled to Logan, Mingo or any of our other West Virginia counties where miners have been put out of work because of the uncertainty created by polices that mandate impossible requirements that reach beyond today’s technology.  The suffering of that unemployment is vivid, stark and extremely concerning. 

It’s times like this that you have to wonder if West Virginians really understand the world, or the context of their complaints about the downturn of the coal industry and its economic implications. In his new “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis actually has a lot to say about poverty. But he’s not talking about whether folks can make the payments on their big pickup truck. And what he has to say is important for anyone who really wants to understand the context of this global problem and the path to finding real solutions. For example:

A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”

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Climate Change EPA Rally

The news this last week certainly hasn’t brought anything that was very comforting to West Virginia families who rely on the coal industry to pay their bills.

Last Friday, we had hundreds of layoffs announced by Murray Energy and Alpha Natural Resources. Then this week, researchers at West Virginia University released the latest forecast of doom and gloom for the state’s future coal production.

But as we explained in our Gazette story — and as we’ve explained in previous stories (here and here) — none of this should come as a surprise to anyone, and defeating the Obama administration’s new carbon emissions rules isn’t going to save our state’s coal industry, especially in the southern counties where much of the easy-to-mine coal is gone.

Last week’s layoffs produced the predictable chest-thumping from local political leaders about how bad EPA is and how hard they are fighting any effort to do anything about the dire threat posed by the climate crisis. Even when coalfield leaders manage to admit that there are other factors behind coal’s decline, they try desperately to downplay those realities.

Take Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, for example. His press release about the Murray and Alpha layoffs admitted this much:

We recognize market forces play a large role in these decisions …

But the governor and his staff were quick to pivot to their real message:

However, the market is also being forced to react to overreaching regulations from the EPA. For years, we have warned the EPA of the consequences of its irresponsible mandates. We will continue to oppose EPA policies that have devastating impacts on West Virginia miners, their families and our communities.

And, almost as an afterthought, the administration mentions it hopes to do a little bit to help laid off miners:

At the same time, we will continue to reach out to displaced miners and their families to offer support and retraining assistance through Workforce West Virginia programs. We are creating new jobs in West Virginia, and we are committed to ensuring all West Virginians have access to the education and training they need to not only fill these positions but secure a bright future in the Mountain State now and for years to come.

Why isn’t the governor’s message to his state something like this:

While we continue to urge the EPA to modify its carbon emissions rules in ways we believe will make those rules more fair, we know that nothing EPA can do is going to suddenly bring us another coal boom. Those days are over, and all of us must do everything we can to build a brighter economic future for our coalfield communities.

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Coals War

I have to admit that the first thing I thought of when I saw the social media postings about the Politico piece, “Inside the war on coal,” was: Why did a reporter as good as Michael Grunwald fall into the trap of calling something a “war” that simply isn’t a war. But perhaps I just need to accept the fact that the industry PR people who thought up the phrase earned their money and, despite my  best efforts on this blog (see War is war: Why not call coal debate something else?),  nobody else is going to start calling what’s happening to coal something else.

As I read on through this piece, though, there is much that folks in places like the coalfields of West Virginia should read. Mike nails a lot of this, as he very often does:

Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar … Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade.

But, a significant strength of this piece is that it doesn’t, as much journalism on these topics does today, pretend that far-off global concerns about climate change are the only downside to coal:

Coal is also America’s top source of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic air pollutants, so fewer coal plants also means less asthma and lung disease—not to mention fewer coal-ash spills and coal-mining disasters.

And, he notes something that I’ve written about many times before — that President Obama has not always been nearly as tough on coal as industry mouthpieces would have us all believe. There are also just tons of really interesting details about the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” efforts to shut down power plants around the country. For example:

At a dry hearing in a drab courtroom in Oklahoma City, a methodical Beyond Coal attorney named Kristin Henry, whose bio identifies her as “one of the few environmentalists who would never be caught wearing Birkenstocks,” was pinning down an Oklahoma Gas & Electric executive with a barrage of wouldn’t-you-agrees, isn’t-it-trues, and would-it-be-fair-to-say’s. The power company was out of compliance with a federal air-quality rule called “regional haze,” so it was offering to convert one of its two coal plants into a natural gas plant. Henry knew she couldn’t stop that. But OG&E also wanted to install massive new scrubbers on the other plant so it could keep burning coal for decades to come. Henry was determined to stop that.

 In the 90 minutes Henry spent cross-examining OG&E’s Joseph Rowlett in early March, she didn’t ask a single question about climate or public health. She focused exclusively on OG&E’s request for the largest rate increase in state history, a 15 percent hike to finance the utility’s $700 million compliance plan. Through her deadpan, leading questions, she portrayed OG&E as a company desperate to get its customers to foot the bill to prop up an inefficient plant, pursuing retrofits it would never consider if its own shareholders had to swallow the costs, operating in a dream world where regional haze was coal’s only challenge. At one point, she got Rowlett to admit his calculations assumed there would be no additional coal regulations for the next thirty years, even though the EPA intends to finalize at least four new coal regulations this year alone.

 “Isn’t it true you’re assuming zero over the next 30 years?” Henry asked.

 Rowlett paused a few seconds. “That’s right,” he replied.

 

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Coalfield Justice: W.Va. needs more than love

Jim Justice

West Virginia billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces that he is running for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 2016 in White Sulphur Springs , W.Va., Monday, May 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

There’s a lot of commentary floating around about Monday’s big announcement that billionaire businessman Jim Justice is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of the great state of West Virginia. Some of it is fairly silly stuff.

The Daily Mail for some reason thinks that having someone who can spend as much money as he wants enter the race is a good way to encourage other candidates to run in next year’s election.  The Gazette wants readers to believe that Justice’s candidacy is proof that West Virginia’s Democratic party — which just lost both houses of the Legislature and another congressional seat — is “vital” and “dynamic.” Over at West Virginia MetroNews, Hoppy Kercheval is just glad that the Justice campaign will add to a “compelling game” that will provide plenty to talk about on the radio.

As best I could tell, the only media outlet that didn’t bury the lead was National Public Radio, which used the headline: Mine Owner, Delinquent On Safety Fines, Announces Run For West Virginia Governor for its blog post about the Justice announcement. NPR’s Howard Berkes explained:

NPR and Mine Safety and Health News reported in November that Justice had failed to pay close to $2 million in government mine safety penalties. The mines involved had an injury rate in the previous five years that was double the average rate for coal mines, according to the NPR/MSHN analysis.

Sure, other and more local media outlets included mention of this. But Howard was the only one who made it the thrust of his coverage of the Justice announcement. Part of that is simply because tying it in to NPR’s remarkable series about unpaid safety fines (including a feature on Justice that was headlined Billionaire Spent Millions In Charity, But Avoided Mine Fines) was the hook for Howard covering the story in the first place. But perhaps this is also a case of an outsider seeing things more clearly and being willing to be a bit more honest than the rest of us.

It’s tempting to write off Justice’s unpaid safety fines — along with pending environmental fines and other allegedly unpaid bills (see here, here and here) — as just a function of the current downward spiral in the Appalachian coal industry, as  Gazette editorial opined last year (“It’s a shame that an albatross hangs around [Justice’s] neck, a part of the plight of Appalachian mining.”)

Such conclusions ignore the long line of Gazette reporter Dr. Paul Nyden’s stories about Justice’s Bluestone Coal being the coal producers who owed substantial sums to the state’s old workers’ compensation fund (see here, here and here). This kind of thinking also looks beyond the very real results of mine-safety violations, which we’ve written about before here and here.

Perhaps the Justice gubernatorial campaign should be viewed, at least in part, through the context of the big coal news that happened the day after his announcement: the second Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of Patriot Coal. Interestingly, just a few days before Patriot’s bankruptcy filing,  the top story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail was about the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement warning state officials that “the precarious financial situation that many of the state’s coal companies find themselves in today” could spell huge trouble for the Department of Environmental Protection’s abandoned mine cleanup program.

While OSM didn’t name Patriot, one of the biggest concerns raised by the agency’s Charleston field office director, Roger Calhoun, was related to the potentially huge costs of selenium treatment at Patriot’s mountaintop removal sites across Southern West Virginia. Of course, it was mostly citizen groups and their lawyers — not OSM or other federal (let alone state) regulatory agencies that really pushed Patriot and other coal companies to begin dealing with their selenium problems.  As Patriot’s chief operating restructuring officer Ray Dombrowski said in a bankruptcy court filing this week:

Several citizen lawsuits brought by non-governmental organizations have also stressed the Debtors’ financial condition. The Debtors have incurred significant costs to comply with these laws and regulations.

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GOP leader pleased with UBB prosecutions

Mine Explosion Congress

There was a fascinating little line in the opening statement given today by House Education and the Workforce subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, at a hearing where lawmakers received an update on the administration’s mine safety efforts:

Upper Big Branch is a terrible reminder that bad actors will look for ways to cut corners and jeopardize the well-being of their workers, despite a moral and legal obligation to make safety the number one priority. I am pleased that those who had a hand in the Upper Big Branch tragedy are being held responsible. It is taking some time, but justice is being served.

These comments come, of course, as U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin here in West Virginia prepares for trial on the criminal charges he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby have pursued against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

And, the comments — coming from a Republican subcommittee chair in Congress — are particularly interesting, given how Blankenship’s defense team has tried to portray his prosecution as nothing more than an effort by Democrats to shut down a conservative critic.

Chemical tank rollbacks: How soon we forget

Coal Water Pollution

In this Jan. 13, 2014, photo, workers, left, inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 A year ago yesterday, this is what I posted on this blog:

It seems almost impossible to believe that West Virginia lawmakers have passed and sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin a decent piece of legislation that will do much to remedy the many inactions (see here, here and here) that played a role in the January chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 of us.

Somehow, lawmakers held off any effort to seriously undermine the great improvements that the House made to SB 373, and they even went back on Friday night and took out an ill-conceived amendment that even sponsor Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo did not even understand. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, certainly nailed it when he explained what happened this way:

I think Senate Bill 373 is an example of how the system is supposed to work.

 And here’s what I wrote in a Gazette story early this morning, after spending more than four hours listening to the House Judiciary Committee:

Legislation that dismantles large portions of the chemical tank safety bill passed after last year’s Freedom Industries leak appears headed for passage, following a narrow approval late Monday night by the House Judiciary Committee.

Committee members approved the bill (SB 423) by a 13-12 vote taken at about 11:30 p.m,, following the defeat of an amendment aimed at strengthening parts of the bill at the end of a more than four-hour meeting. That amendment failed by an identical margin.

“This bill is a rollback of all we accomplished last year,” said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson.

So that’s where we are. It seems almost certain that this new bill will easily pass the House. And can anyone really imagine Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — who never really had much of a taste for doing anything on this issue that industry lobbyists weren’t down with — not signing the bill?

And don’t let anybody try to fool you … this bill is a huge retreat from SB 373.  To know that, all you really need to understand is that it leaves tens of thousands of above-ground storage tanks out of the new regulatory program.  But remember: It also reduces the frequency of mandated Department of Environmental Protection inspections, eases the safety standards for the tanks it still covers, and blocks public access to key information about potential threats to public drinking water.

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More on WVU, Gordon Gee and Massey Energy

Geephoto

It’s WVU Day up at the statehouse, so I guess we’ll be treated to a lot of “selfies” of university President E. Gordon Gee. But there’s a timely report out from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in which someone from our state’s news media finally questions Gee about his history and relationship with Massey Energy and indicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

Public Broadcasting’s Scott Finn asked Gee to comment on the four-count indictment that alleges his old friend led an effort to violate safety laws, thwart government inspections, and then lie to securities regulators and the investing public at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion (recall that Gee had not only served on Massey’s board, but on that board’s safety and environment committee — well, that is, he did, before he resigned those posts under pressure from environmental groups and Ohio State students).

Scott asked him:

Dr. Gee I know you’re not just concerned about student safety, but worker safety as well. Until you resigned from the Massey Energy Board of Directors in 2009, you served as chairman of their Safety, Environmental and Public Policy committee. In light of that, what’s your reaction to the federal indictment of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in relation to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Gee responded initially:

Well, you know, obviously, I think all of us who were every involved in mining in this state, and I certainly was, believe that the safety of our workers is the number one priority.

But Gee dodged any comment on the indictment, saying:

… It is probably inappropriate for me to comment on the indictment itself because I’m not engaged in it, I’m not familiar with it. I think this is a matter for the federal courts and a matter for them to resolve.

Scott pressed on, noting the findings of Davitt McAteer’s report on Upper Big Branch — that Massey Energy had a terrible safety culture, one McAteer’s team described as “the normalization of deviance,” and asked Gee:

I know you care deeply about safety, what do you think kept you and the other Massey board members from understanding the depth of the safety problems.

But here’s what else he had to say, according to the Public Broadcasting story:

“During my service on the Massey Board, that was clearly the focus on our board, was on safety and safety measures,” Gee said …

Gee said that safety was “always our number one concern” during his time on the board, and that they were “working very hard to solve the problems we had,” he said.

“These are large companies. I ran Ohio State University, which is the largest university in the country, and West Virginia University, which is one of the very large, complex institutions, and I don’t know everything that goes on there. So you have to have that sort of trusting relationship of having good people doing good things,” Gee said.

For the record, Gee was one of the named defendants in a lawsuit against Massey officials over safety conditions that were supposed to have been remedied under an earlier settlement, but — judging from the 29 dead bodies at Upper Big Branch — were not. Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey, settled that suit for $265 million. And U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had said in court records that former Massey executives and board members “may be or may become” targets in his office’s criminal investigation.

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Protecting miners: Will lawmakers get the message?

cecilsenatehearing2010

As the centerpiece of the West Virginia Coal Association’s legislative agenda continues to make its way through the Legislature,  United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts today ripped the bill in a strong op-ed piece in the Gazette:

West Virginians have been treated to a display of raw political payback over the last several weeks in Charleston. Emboldened by sweeping victories in last November’s election, a new majority in the state Legislature is advancing legislation on multiple fronts that is designed to remove decades of laws and regulations that they believe have made West Virginia “uncompetitive.”

One of the industry groups set to benefit the most from all this is the coal industry, which has been in trouble lately, no question. The industry’s supporters say that to fix that problem, we need to roll back safety regulations. That, apparently, will save money. My question is, will it be enough?

He goes on:

What will it take to compete with coal being sold at about one quarter of the price of our coal? I just don’t think rolling back decades of safety improvements will do it. Nope, we’re going to have to do more.

Let’s bring back the company store, so the companies can take back the wages they pay to the miners. Maybe the companies can once again charge the miners for the tools and equipment they use. Longwalls and continuous miners are expensive; it seems only right that the companies recoup their costs for them.

And we can bring back the company town, so the miners can pay rent to the company for the privilege of living in a forced labor camp while working at a more unsafe mine. We can put company doctors back to work, because of course they are the most qualified to say if injured miners are healthy enough to go to work or have black lung. But no painkillers, though.

Two things about this line of argument come to mind.

First, will some of the Republicans now running the West Virginia Legislature — and maybe even some of the Democrats — understand that Cecil Roberts isn’t really suggesting our state do these things? It’s hard to know, especially after listening to some lawmakers who didn’t want to adopt as state standards to limit child labor in the especially dangerous places, despite more than decade-old recommendations aimed at keeping kids safe.

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Mine Explosion Anniversary

As West Virginia lawmakers continue to push a variety of measures aimed at weakening worker safety standards and eroding new water quality protections, it’s important to pay attention to some of the things they’re also doing to the state’s legal system — often one of the few places where citizens can go to have their voices heard and wrongs done to them addressed.

Often, the way these issues are being portrayed — as GOP lawmakers and industry lobbyists versus rich plaintiffs’ lawyers — while accurate to a point, doesn’t come close to telling the full story.

Take yesterday’s vote in the House of Delegates in favor of HB2011, a bill  with this fairly confusing name: “Relating to disbursements from the Workers’ Compensation Fund where an injury is self inflicted or intentionally caused by the employer.”

shott_johnThe general take on all of this is, basically:  Workers gave up the right to sue in most cases in exchange for guaranteed compensation for them if they are hurt on the job or their families if they are killed. Wrongful death lawsuits were only to be allowed in the most serious cases, when employers could be shown to have “deliberate intent” to cause on-the-job injuries or deaths. But those crazy courts in West Virginia have repeatedly interpreted this term “deliberate intent” far too liberally. As House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said in the Gazette story on yesterday’s House vote:

We are balancing the interest of our people and our business community.  The balance is out of sync. It’s no wonder our children and our grandchildren have to leave the area to get jobs.

Now, never mind that we’ve not seen or heard any data about how many “deliberate intent” cases are filed in West Virginia every year, or how many of those led to judgment against employers, or let alone had any serious discussion so far this session about what the state could do to stop leading the nation in coal-mining deaths and or (despite Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s recommendation for a study) the troubling string of deaths in the booming Marcellus Shale gas business.

It’s not like the West Virginia Legislature really feels the need to actually understand an issue, or have good data and expert analysis, to take action, right?

But in most cases, it would probably be helpful if the general public were given more than just a few quotes from each “side” of the debate. It’s helpful to look and see what bills actually say. So let’s do that with this “deliberate intent” bill.

First, a little bit of background, something that’s easy enough to get by just checking out this page from the West Virginia Encyclopedia, which describes the “Mandolidis” case and a bit of the history of workers compensation and deliberate intent in our state:

Mandolidis is a landmark case because it greatly expanded a worker’s right to sue an employer, even if the worker was covered by the workers’ compensation program. In the decision, Justice Darrell V. McGraw Jr. said the court recognized ‘‘a distinction between negligence, including gross negligence, and willful, wanton and reckless misconduct.’’ Such misconduct was interpreted as a deliberate intention on the part of the employer. This intention need not involve an actual desire to injure the worker, but rather an awareness of exposing the worker to a risk entailing a high probability of physical injury. In such cases, damages might be sought beyond the compensation provided by the workers compensation program. Such redress was allowed under the original 1913 workers compensation statute but had been restricted in recent decades under a 1936 court decision.

The president of the state Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders criticized the ruling and asked the legislature to pass a law to lessen its impact. Governor Rockefeller asked the 1982 legislature to consider a change in the law, but the legislature decided to appoint a study commission which made its recommendation in 1983. That year the Mandolidis bill (HB1201) was enacted, modifying the seven-year old decision. The new law softened the impact of the court decision but provided more rights to workers than prior to Mandolidis.

As you can imagine, there’s been tremendous controversy over the years about what this legislation actually means. There have been a lot of court cases, and lawmakers periodically revisit the issue, most frequently at the urging of business lobbyists who would just as well prefer that workers not be able to sue them at all for on-the-job injuries.

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‘Stand strong’: Can West Virginians work together?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

Here in West Virginia, there’s a lot going on up at the statehouse. Some might say that, judging from the headlines, it’s hard to find a lot of progress, at least if you consider progress bringing people together to work for a better future for our state.

First, there’s the movement by some lawmakers  to greatly weaken the landmark chemical tank safety and drinking water protection law passed after last year’s Freedom Industries spill and the resulting water crisis. Then there’s the promise from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association that they’re going to keep pressing for what the West Virginia Rivers Coalition calls the “the most drastic weakening of statewide drinking water protections” since the state established water quality standards in the 1960s.

Then, there’s the new Republican leadership in the Legislature, doing their best to spend a lot of time on the most divisive issues they can think of (see here, here and here, for example).

It’s easy on the one hand to almost dismiss this stuff, saying things like, “West Virginians voted for these guys, so they have to live with it,” or even — something I hear increasingly from younger West Virginians — that they’re tired of the politics here and would rather just move away.  It’s just as easy to pretend that issues like the re-emergence of the push for a “right-to-work” law aren’t really that important anymore.

But I can’t escape the conclusion of former Gazette columnist William Miernyk, writing many years ago — the last time right-to-work was being pushed:

The major objection to right-to-work legislation, the bottom line, if I may be forgiven the use of the abominable cliche, is that it is the most divisive kind of legislation imaginable. The only way residents of the Mountain State can hope to cope with its myriad problems is by cooperation among all segments of our society. The best way I know to ensure that such cooperation will not be forthcoming is to pass a right-to-work law.

That’s why, really, this week is ending with what West Virginians should really see as perhaps a small bit of victory, of people who are thinking about the future coming together — even if they didn’t really mean to — to voice opposition to more divisive proposals.

I’m talking, of course, about yesterday’s public hearing on the West Virginia Coal Association’s centerpiece of legislation for this year’s session. As described in our Gazette story this morning:

Representatives of working coal miners and from the state’s environmental community turned out Thursday to oppose a legislative initiative from the West Virginia Coal Association, saying the bill wrongly weakens protection for workers and water quality.

Leaders of the United Mine Workers union spoke out against the provisions of the “Coal Jobs and Safety Act” during a House Energy Committee public hearing, as did representatives from the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Environmental Council.

UMWA officials don’t like the Coal Association’s efforts to roll back important workplace protections for coal miners. Environmental groups don’t like the industry’s insistence on weakening water quality standards that protect us all. As Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said:

This bill is a real effort to divide the environmental and the labor folks.  It’s saying that we can try to keep the environment clean or we can protect jobs, and that’s a fundamentally false dichotomy. What we’re seeing here is the labor and environmental communities both coming out and opposing this bill.

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Coal agenda moving at the statehouse

MTR_HouseReportPhoto

It’s not like the coal industry had a particularly hard time getting its bills through the West Virginia Legislature when Democrats were running the show.  But it’s worth noting that the industry’s agenda is starting to move again this year under the new Republican leadership as well.

For example, take today’s meeting of the Senate Energy Industry and Mining Committee, where a major change in state water pollution rules covering coal was approved with basically no discussion at all.

The bill under consideration was SB 166, a Department of Environmental Protection rules bill that makes one little change in the water pollution permit rule for coal mining operations. It deletes from the rule this sentence:

The discharge or discharges covered by a WV/NPDES permit are to be of such quality so as not to cause violation of applicable water quality standards promulgated by 47 C.S.R. 2.

As was explained to committee members, the point of the bill is to allow mine operators to use a state DEP permit as a “shield” against citizen lawsuits that allege mining discharges are causing water quality standard violations.  In federal court, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers has been refusing to go along with this “permit shield” defense.  Naturally, if the coal industry can’t comply with the law, the best thing to do is to change that law, right?

But hold on, because there was a bill introduced today that would go even further. SB 357 says:

While permits shall contain conditions that are designed to meet all applicable state and federal water quality standards and effluent limitations, water quality standards themselves shall not be incorporated wholesale either expressly or by reference as effluent standards or limitations in a permit issued pursuant to this article.

So, if this passes, the law in West Virginia would be that DEP can’t write into water pollution permits for the coal industry that mining companies must comply with water quality standards.

If you like that change, then be sure to read the West Virginia Coal Association’s entire legislative wish list, which I’ve posted here. And before anybody thinks they can blame all of this on the Legislature’s new Republican leadership, remember that this DEP-written changesin coal permit rules was all because of a previous bill that was passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed by a Democratic governor.

Obama-Global Warming

As the first full week of this year’s legislative session comes to an end, it’s more clear than ever that there’s little room up at our statehouse for facts. If you listened to the debate on the House floor yesterday as delegates took turns standing up for coal, you know what I’m talking about.

It was hard not to wonder if as many lawmakers will still be so concerned about coal miners when it comes time to vote on whether to give the industry immunity to many workplace injury and death lawsuits.

But seriously, the longer I watch West Virginia politics — especially politics surrounding coal and energy — the more that each debate over each issue seems to become more and more deprived of facts or data, let alone reasoned analysis of those facts and data.

The facts about the terribly minor, really negligible, impacts of then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s “Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard Act” were made clear in a Gazette story we published on Thursday:

… State records show that the 2009 law actually does little to hurt the coal industry and maybe even less to really promote alternatives like wind energy or solar power. West Virginia’s coal-heavy utilities say they have been — and will continue to be — able to meet the law without adding new renewable generation.

This story was based on annual reports that West Virginia’s two largest utilities filed with the state Public Service Commission (see here and here), and with an annual analysis that the PSC itself performed (see here). No one has really produced any facts or data or evidence of any kind that disputes this information. None.

It’s not surprising that career political consultants tried to use passage of this do-nothing “alternative” energy bill tried to re-label it as “cap and trade” so they could use it against now-Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (see here and here).  And you have to hand it to the Republicans — they campaigned against this bill, and in repealing it, they’re doing what they said that they would.

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Will a new year bring change to West Virginia?

State of the State

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

It was pretty surprising that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin couldn’t bring himself to mention the Freedom Industries chemical leak and the resulting water crisis in his State of the State address earlier this week.

No, I wasn’t expecting that Governor Tomblin would suddenly become a public champion for tough environmental enforcement and use his annual speech to caution the Legislature’s new Republican leadership against rushing to gut SB 373’s new safety requirement for chemical tanks and mandates for public drinking water protections by utilities. But you would have thought the governor would at least use the water crisis as an example of how West Virginians pull together in times of trouble sorts of things that are so popular among our state’s political elite.

For the record, I asked Tomblin’s communications director, Chris Stadelman, why the governor left the whole thing out of the State of the State, and here’s what he said:

Gov. Tomblin understands that protecting our state’s water resources is an important issue for residents not only in the Kanawha Valley but throughout West Virginia. Water protection continues to be the focus of a number of efforts, and he will continue to review what improvements we need to make. The Jan. 9, 2014, chemical leak was discussed in depth last week, including the release of an After Action Report by Gov. Tomblin, so the State of the State focused on other issues.

Fair enough. But when the governor then uses his speech to go on and on about the great benefits he sees to the boom in natural gas drilling and production in the state’s Marcellus Shale — all the while ignoring repeated calls by state-hired experts and outside scientists (see here, here, here and here, just for example) for more protections for citizens in the gas patch — well, that sends a pretty clear message to West Virginians who were hoping Governor Tomblin and other state officials had learned something from what happened back in January 2014.

For folks who live with the Marcellus boom’s negative impacts, it had to be especially hard to take for the governor to tout passage of the 2011 Horizontal Drilling Act as “comprehensive legislation.” Part of the deal when that law was enacted was that certain issues would not be dealt with, but put off for additional study by the DEP. Those studies are done, and they recommend more protections for citizens and the environment, yet Governor Tomblin and the Legislature pretend none of that ever happened.

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2And this from Governor Tomblin in his speech comes less than a week after DEP Secretary Randy Huffman appeared at a citizen group-sponsored event to mark the anniversary of the Freedom leak and promised to work to block industry from removing the statewide “Category A” drinking water protections currently given to all West Virginia rivers and streams:

That’s taking us backward. That’s a policy, a rule change, that we just can’t allow to happen. I hope it never comes up again, and it’s  a discussion that we don’t have to have.

What struck me there was Randy’s use of the plural pronouns … “taking us backward” and especially a rule change that “we can’t just can’t allow to happen.”

There’s plenty that citizen groups and Randy Huffman don’t agree on … mountaintop removal comes to mind. You’re not going to get Randy on board to outlaw that practice, and the DEP’s proposed changes in state water pollution permits for coal mining are certainly something that the industry very much wants, and environmental groups hope to somehow find a way to stop. And DEP is on board with Governor Tomblin’s continued insistence on fighting against efforts to do something about coal’s contributions to global warming.

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What about China: Obama makes major climate deal

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping drink a toast at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. Obama is on a state visit after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The United States and China pledged Wednesday to take ambitious action to limit greenhouse gases, aiming to inject fresh momentum into the global fight against climate change ahead of high-stakes climate negotiations next year. (AP Photo/Greg Baker, Pool)

Here in the coalfields of West Virginia, one of the constant refrains against any U.S. action to reduce greenhouse emissions is: But what about China?

For example, here’s Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, trashing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants:

We hear from the supporters of this rule that if the United States ‘takes the lead’ on reducing carbon emissions, then others will follow. But what evidence do we have that they actually will? And why on earth should we be willing to sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens on the naive bet that current and emerging economic competitors like China, India, Brazil, Russia and others will follow our lead?

History shows that they will not. They will, instead, use this as an opportunity to take more of our jobs, more of our industrial base, more of our national wealth.

Or, here’s Sen. Joe Manchin, in a Senate floor discussion about how coal is the future:

Currently China burns more than 4 billion tons per year. They are not stopping or letting up. If anything, they are increasing their consumption and building
more coal-fired plants as we speak, while the United States and Europe each burn less than 1 billion tons. So the United States of America, you could say, uses less than one-eighth of the coal consumed annually in the world. If we stopped burning every kind of coal, would that really clean up the climate?

And here’s West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, speaking out against the Obama administration’s efforts to address climate change:

Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped 12% from 2005 levels, while emissions in other countries continue to increase. Even if these guidelines were adopted in their current form, and I stress that West Virginia will do everything in its power to keep that from happening, those reductions would be offset by other countries – countries that would be taking American jobs as they continue to produce electricity at a lower cost.

But a funny thing happened on the way to all these folks using the China card. Here’s the lead from The New York Times:

China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.

The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out quietly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

The story continues:

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

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Who’s really been running W.Va. all these years?

farmington-photo1

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Somehow it makes sense that, in the wake of Tuesday’s general election results, one of the bigger pieces of coal news in West Virginia is the filing of a new lawsuit over the 46-year-old Farmington Mine Disaster.

History is a tough thing here in coal country. As the great historian John Alexander Williams has observed, the fact that our history is so painful is probably one reason it’s so poorly understood. But in understanding the election results, it’s important to try to step back and put them in context.

It’s popular among the GOP’s career campaign consultants to describe this election as some huge change in power, in who runs things in West Virginia. It’s the end of more than 80 years of Democratic control, they say over and over.

CapitoRaney

Of course, even if you want to focus only on the partisan aspects of this, their narrative ignores the three terms that Republican Arch Moore served as governor (at least part of the time, enriching himself in exchange for helping coal operators) and the two terms that Republican Cecil Underwood served as governor (at least part of the time, fighting against the Clinton administration’s version of the “war on coal“).

Joe ManchinRegardless of what Sen. Joe Manchin keeps telling himself, the terrible campaigns run by West Virginia Democrats were at the heart of their electoral losses this year.  But it’s not all about messaging or better television ads. It’s also about policy.

And on coal issues, the Democrats simply didn’t make much of a case. A Gazette editorial pointed out:

There is legitimate fear about the future of coal jobs, more from market forces that don’t favor coal, but also from pollution controls that are important for both local and global health. But did Democrats outline a solution so that as jobs disappear, as they have been doing for 50 years, people are able to move into other good jobs without losing their homes? No. They ran ads just like the Republicans, suggesting that all West Virginia’s problems are the fault of President Obama and the EPA.

The result? When faced with a genuine Republican and a pale imitation, people vote for the real thing, or don’t vote at all.

Governor TomblinThere are other examples, including some that might help Democrats do better with the vote among coal families (exit polls showed 23 percent of West Virginia Senate race voters had someone in their household who worked in the industry, and Rep. Capito got 73 percent of those people). While Democrats tried to make arguments that the Republicans would weaken mine safety and health protections, that doesn’t get much traction when West Virginia’s House, Senate and Governor’s office — all controlled by Democrats — pass such a weak excuse for a mine safety bill after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster (or when the Democratic Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, responds to mining deaths by saying basically, “well, accidents happen“.)

West Virginia Democrats like Natalie Tennant refuse to talk about the mounting evidence that mountaintop removal is not only an environmental disaster, but a public health crisis.  They make out like the only impediment to economic development in the southern coalfields is needing more flattened land, and ignore the problems created by huge tracts of the state’s land being owned by out-of-state interests.

Rather than coming up with realistic ways for West Virginia to do its part in tackling global climate change, West Virginia Democrats like Nick Casey shrug and say, “It’s not our problem.”

Even with the failure of the West Virginia Democrats to have, you know, a plan, there’s something more going on here.

If you want to look at recent history, it’s not hard to argue that the current GOP takeover of the Legislature started in 2004, when then-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship financed the effort to get Democrat Warren McGraw off the state Supreme Court, giving the seat to Republican Brent Benjamin. Let’s remember what the U.S. Supreme Court had to say about that whole affair.

Two years after the Benjamin victory, Blankenship financed an effort to to put more Republicans into the state Legislature. Larry Messina, then the AP’s statehouse reporter, described it at the time:

As part of his multimillion-dollar campaign to sweep Democrats from the Legislature, Massey Energy Co. chief Don Blankenship has helped provide more than one-fourth of the funds raised by his handpicked Republican candidates, campaign finance records show.

The wealthy president, chairman and CEO has spread nearly $100,000 among 60 candidates running for both the House and Senate. Following his lead, a relative handful of Blankenship associates – current and former Massey employees, suppliers and family members – have kicked in an additional $165,200 to these anointed candidates.

For 15 of Blankenship’s candidates, these contributions account for at least half of their funds. It represents three-fourths or more of the money raised by six of them.

But the direct contributions pale next to the statewide advertising campaign that Blankenship has bankrolled to wrest control of the 100-seat House of Delegates from the Democrats. As of Thursday, Blankenship had poured $2.03 million into his independent campaign that attacks 40 incumbent lawmakers while urging voters to support 41 GOP candidates.

Validating a rumor from when Blankenship first vowed to take on legislators, this spending so far equals $50,845 for each Democrat targeted. He has devoted an average of $72,636 to each of the 28 House districts statewide he seeks to influence.

That campaign was largely unsuccessful.  But a small core of former Blankenship aides, including operative Greg Thomas, has continued working for a decade now toward the goal of a Republican Legislature — reached with Tuesday’s wins in the House and Wednesday’s flip of the Senate.

These connections aren’t hard to make, or the recent history hard to understand — though they aren’t readily made in the state media coverage, partly because of constant staff turnover that erodes institutional memory, and partly because some in the state media aren’t that interested in connecting the dots.

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As the GOP takes over, what now for the coalfields?

Shelley Moore Capito

West Virginia Republican Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Moore Capito speaks after winning the Senate seat, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, at the Embassy Suites in Charleston W.Va. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

The election returns are in. Republicans have taken Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s Senate seat. They finally beat Rep. Nick J. Rahall, and a guy from Maryland defeated Nick “Not our problem” Casey. If that weren’t enough, Republicans have won control of the House of Delegates and pushed the state Senate to a 17-17 split.

So, the excuses begin, and here’s what Larry Puccio, chair of the state Democratic party, told the Gazette’s Phil Kabler last night:

We know the people of West Virginia, whether Democrat, Republican or independent, were not pleased with Barack Obama’s policies, and they came out and showed it today,” Puccio said. “I think they’ve hurt the people of West Virginia in doing so, but they sent a very powerful message.”

Puccio said he thought voters would make a distinction between their displeasure with the president and with Democrats in their local legislative races, but that proved not to be the case.

“I didn’t think, when it got down to the legislative level, it would resonate, but it clearly, obviously did,” he said.

But did it? Well, there’s no question that President Obama is terribly unpopular here. Exit polls from the nation and West Virginia showed that 58 percent of West Virginia voters strongly disapprove of the president’s job performance, compared to 42 percent of voters nationwide. At the same time, there’s a puzzling result that shows that 47 percent of West Virginia voters said President Obama didn’t factor into their vote in the U.S. Senate race, which is about the same as the 45 percent who gave the same response nationwide.

Still, here’s what Larry Puccio said in a press release today:

West Virginia was no exception in the tidal wave that swept the entire country on Election Day due to dissatisfaction with many of the President’s policies.

Those exit polls also have a bit of information about how well the Democratic strategy of trying to out-coal the Republicans turned out.  Twenty-three percent of those surveyed after voting said that someone in their households works in the coal industry, and of those, 73 percent voted for Rep. Capito over Secretary of State Tennant.

Natalie Tennant

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More of the same: Another coalfield Election Day

Coals War

That’s an Associated Press photo from October 2012, taken of a yard sign in Dellslow, W.Va., not long before that year’s presidential election. But it could just as easily have been taken this fall, pretty  much anywhere in the Appalachian coalfields.

Two years after the industry’s “war on coal” campaign failed to knock President Obama out of another term in the White House, the political rhetoric in the nation’s coalfields has, if anything, only gotten worse.

The list of things that coalfield candidates don’t want to talk seriously about is long and important: Mine disasters, black lung disease, global climate change, the environmental and human health costs of mountaintop removal, and — probably most significantly — what Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky will do for jobs and an economy as the region’s coal production continues to decline.

No, this election has been all about every candidate from a major party trying to out anti-Obama their opponent.  The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for American had a post today called How The Media Helped The GOP Sell Their Fear-Based Appeal.  But like a lot of this sort of “analysis,” they are far too easy on the Democrats. As any reader of this blog knows, the Democrats in coal country have been trying to sell the anti-Obama snake oil as hard as any of the Republicans.

Candidates and their career campaign consultants are mostly too blame for this. But we in the media are responsible as well. We publish absolutely ridiculous stories that tell only part of the story, take part in debates that don’t include all the candidates and certainly don’t ask the right questions, and put style way ahead of substance both in candidates and coverage. Then, when it’s actually time to vote, we sell sacred front-page print and online space to candidates.

They — and we —  should do better.

Because elections do matter. And regardless of who controls the U.S. Senate or the W.Va. House, coalfield residents will wake up on Wednesday facing the same set of serious challenges: Natural gas will still be cheap. The best coal reserves in Central Appalachia will still be mined out. Carbon dioxide in our planet’s atmosphere will still be climbing to levels we should all be afraid of. The coal-mining jobs that are left will will be too dangerous, putting workers at risk of dying suddenly in a roof fall or slowly from black lung.

When all the votes are counted, our region will still face too much drug abuse and too little education, too much pollution and not nearly enough quality health care, too many WARN notices and too few jobs — too much fear and far, far too little hope. And mostly all the election will have done with its endless television ads, sound bites and attacks is the one thing that coalfield residents can least afford: Torn us further apart, instead of bringing us closer together.

The ‘dominant narrative’ about coal’s decline

It was interesting to watch this piece from VICE News about the campaign for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, especially the footage of this comment from longtime Rep. Nick J. Rahall:

Coal is everything to our state of West Virginia … I have always stood for coal, am standing for coal, and will always stand for coal … Yeah, coal is in a slump now. But coal is going to come back.

I’d like to believe that Rep. Rahall knows better, that he understands well that the Obama administration isn’t the only pressure on Southern West Virginia coal, and that regardless of whether he and other opponents win their fight with the U.S. EPA, another boom in our southern coalfields simply isn’t just around the corner  (see also here).

The piece goes on to report:

… The dominant narrative around here is that Obama’s stringent regulations — thus his “war on coal” —  are to blame for the loss of coal mining jobs.

It does include this further context:

In reality, the downturn is largely due to dwindling reserves, the rise of natural gas, and the automation of the mining industry, which has replaced workers with machines.

But that’s just a mention, almost in passing, in a nearly 15-minute piece that is mostly about this “dominant narrative.” So you have to wonder, why is the “war on coal” the dominant narrative. Of course, it’s partly because of the huge advertising campaign from the mining industry. But it’s also because that’s the way the national and local media keep framing things.

There’s another example out there today in this Associated Press dispatch:

LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — The president of the West Virginia Coal Association reports a decrease in the number of coal mining sites in the state.

Bill Raney says the state has 96 active mining sites, down from 152 in 2013 and 184 in 2012. Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Raney also says the industry is seeing a shift in production from mines in southern West Virginia to northern West Virginia. He attributes that to the scrubber technology added to northern power plants during the 1990s which enabled them to burn high-sulfur coal found in northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

That story, apparently picked up from the Logan Banner and WVOW-FM in Logan, will likely run in every paper in West Virginia, over the weekend before Tuesday’s general election.  And look at that sentence I put in bold type:

Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

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AR-141029045

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio (center), visits Wayne County on Wednesday, speaking about coal and stumping for state Sen. Evan Jenkins (right), who is running for Congress. They were joined by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Photo by Lawrence Pierce.

Earlier this week, Slate became the latest national media effort to profile West Virginia politics. And author Betsy Woodruff does not disappoint me in my search for journalism that ignores facts, context and nuance. In a piece headlined Goodbye, West Virginia, she writes:

Part of the reason for the president’s popularity problem is—no debate here—coal. The Environmental Protection Agency’s tough new coal regulations have hit the state’s economy hard.

Unlike the New York Times piece we recently discussed, the Slate story makes no effort to describe what’s really going on in the coal industry, with heavy competition from natural gas and dwindling reserves of easy-to-mine coal playing much larger factors than any EPA rules in mining’s current and future decline. Also, this particular writer shows how little she knows about West Virginia politics, by quoting without question a former Democratic party official here who spent a fair amount of time lobbying hard for a most un-Democratic thing: Dismantling of our civil justice system.

But while there’s great irony in some of the quotes in this Slate piece, there’s also no small amount of truth in comments like:

Democrats have accepted being on the defensive. That’s the most frustrating thing.

Just look this week at a major missed opportunity for Democratic candidates like Rep. Nick Rahall and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.  Here was the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, visiting our state to campaign for Rahall’s GOP opponent, Evan Jenkins.

Wouldn’t this have been a perfect time to press Jenkins about how the Republican House, led by his new friend Speaker Boehner, used the budget to bottle up a new rule to end deadly black lung disease, or how years of Republican budget cuts left the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration unable to prevent a series of mine disasters, or how new mine safety reform legislation remains stalled?

Heck, wouldn’t this have been a good opportunity to create some space between Democrats and Republicans by talking about the importance of clean water in the wake of the Freedom Industries chemical spill or tough strip-mining enforcement in the face of more studies linking mountaintop removal to public health and environmental damage?

An otherwise fine commentary in the WVU student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, put out the notion that Secretary of State Tennant has been “unable” to capitalize on the chemical spill to her advantage in her race against Rep. Capito.  The problem isn’t that she was “unable” to do so — it’s that she never really even tried. As for Rep. Rahall, despite his broad knowledge on strip-mining issues and his otherwise solid record on the environment in his many years in Washington, he is right there with the Republicans, trying to dismantle the Clean Water Act. And Democrat Nick Casey? Well, this stuff just isn’t his problem, is it?

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