Who are the real friends of coal miners? Like in the timber wars of the 1980s, an exploitative industry and its lackey politicians have claimed that the industry looks out for the miners against those evil environmentalists, while at the same time engaging in land management and labor policies that make workers’ lives worse. Given a declining industry due to overexploitation of the resource and because of a lack of economic alternatives for scared workers, this political move has been very effective both in logging towns of the Northwest and Appalachian coal country.
But in both places, activists have pushed back against the false choices of industry versus environment. Here is an outstanding letter from retired UMWA organizer Carl Shoupe about the lies of the coal industry to the people of Kentucky.
Since I’ve been around coal all my life, I guess I should be pleased when our “leaders” say they are Friends of Coal. But lately, I’ve been wondering, which part of coal they’re friends with.
Peabody Energy and its new company, Patriot Coal, are trying to weasel out of paying health and pension benefits promised to thousands of retired UMWA miners. Have you heard any objection from these Friends of Coal in our marble palaces in Frankfort? Those miners earned their benefits with their sweat and their blood, but now Peabody wants to dump them like they’re just more overburden.
These politicians may be friends of coal, but they’re not friends of coal miners and their families. These miners and their families are being robbed of their retirement and benefits.
My friend Truman recently spent a week hooked up to a hospital ventilator. Like thousands of others, he suffers with black lung, caused by working in underground mines filled with coal dust. Today, the number of severe black lung cases is on the rise again, affecting workers on strip mines and below ground. And yet Congressman Hal Rogers has led efforts in Congress to block rules designed to protect miners from that awful disease.
Another friend of mine had to move with his daughter away from the homeplace where his family has lived for over 200 years. Toxic runoff from mountaintop removal was poisoning him and his family.
But his state representative, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, stood up at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing about water pollution and insisted that anyone who wants to save the mountains should just “go buy one.”
The speaker may be a friend of the coal companies, but he’s no friend of coalfield families threatened by mountaintop mining and poisoned water.
Coal companies and politicians of both parties who are beholden to coal money are not the friends of workers. At the very least, political progressives should be aware that environmentalists are not the enemies of coal miners. The enemy is the employer who has zero concern for the aftermath of coal mining and the long-term effects of coal dependency on Appalachia.