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The Wages of Coal

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I can see why Appalachian white workers are so hopped up on their Democrat War on Coal signs and bumper stickers. After all, when has the coal industry not paid off for the everyday worker? It’s pure gold! And if there’s one thing you can say about the coal industry, it’s that the coal barons always look out for the little guy….

West Virginia environmental regulators are proposing to reduce the fines that a coal company owned by the state’s governor could pay for water pollution violations that are the focus of a federal court case. The move comes after the company stopped paying penalties required as part of a settlement four years ago to clean up its mines across the Appalachian coalfields.

Environmental groups allege that the Red Fox Mine, a large strip-mining site in southern West Virginia owned by Gov. Jim Justice’s Bluestone Coal Corp., continues to exceed discharge limits for harmful substances. The suit could result in substantial payouts — the maximum potential federal penalties are nearly $170 million — that would go to the U.S. Treasury.

In the weeks before a trial in the case, lawyers for Bluestone filed documents detailing a draft deal worked out separately with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. The state agency, whose administrator is appointed by Justice, has agreed to settle the violations for a fine of $125,000, according to a court filing by the environmental groups’ lawyers. (State and federal governments share the authority to enforce water pollution rules.)

Lawyers for Bluestone are asking the judge to throw out the federal case, saying the state settlement and hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal fines the company already paid for the same violations should resolve the matters.

Lawyers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups say the state settlement doesn’t moot their suit, and they urged a federal judge not to grant Bluestone’s request to throw out the case. They called the state action “a self-dealing administrative order” and said the proposed penalties “are insufficient to deter future violations, leaving a realistic prospect of continued noncompliance.” At best, the lawyers say, the amount paid would offset potential fines in the federal court action.

The fight to force Justice’s empire to follow pollution rules, the groups say, symbolizes the larger ongoing fight over how aggressively to regulate an industry that remains politically powerful, even as its economic influence declines.

Jim Justice is an extremely distasteful human being.

But the other thing going on here is something that you can see around the nation. As industries decline, the average worker’s loyalty to the industry doesn’t decline. It increases and intensifies. It gets washed over with a hazy nostalgia for how things used to be even though they weren’t like that. You can see this with loggers and mill workers in Sequim, Washington and Coquille, Oregon. You can see it with miners in Butte, Montana and Leadville, Colorado. You can see with fishermen in Point Judith, Rhode Island and Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts. You can see it with auto workers in Lansing, Michigan and Youngstown, Ohio. And you can see it through the coal belt. The coal industry doesn’t even make up that much of the economy of West Virginia and Kentucky and Pennsylvania these days, but the political power remains strong because the executives can cynically tap into the loss of a culture that they themselves caused to continue to enrich themselves. It’s infuriating. But it’s also very hard to get workers to see the issue differently.

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