Picking Sides

Blogger Nick Mullins of Out of the Coal Mines and Into the Fire wrote a particularly poignant piece on the heels of Labor Day, giving credit to the tremendous courage underground miners face to feed their families (and our electric grid).  But, as he himself has been, Mullins observes that "Coal miners are caught in the middle of an information battle between the well-funded coal industry and the often underfunded non-profit environmentalists."  Mullins describes his own story, learning experience and eventual move away from mining:
I am, or was, a fourth generation coal miner. There's not really much to tell about me. While I did decently well in high school I didn’t attend college. I instead chose to forge my own path which often led to failure. My only successes in life were marrying a wonderful lady and becoming the father of two beautiful children. I worked in the mines until we lost all of our worldy possessions in a fire. Since that time I have a gained a new perspective on life. Many of the reasons I thought I needed to work in the mines were gone, shedding a new light on what is needed in life to be happy. As a family we have set out upon an adventure to seek a better life outside of the coalfields of Southwestern Virginia. In the mean time I have pondered many of the problems plaguing Appalachia, and as I resurrect this blog, I plan to share those thoughts, and this time I'll be using my real name.

His post "Coal Miners are Good People" is a thoughtful read — but begs the question, does this conversation inevitably end in one side versus the other?  Is there another way to talk about what's going on here?  Do we have to pick a side?

As originally posted on Out of the Coal Mines and Into the Fire:

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, especially “Slaves to the System”, I’ve painted a picture that coal miners have a tendency to get themselves into large amounts of debt, some frivolously, some just out of sheer need. Regardless of the reasons, coal miners are financially bound to their mining jobs and become very scared when told the industry they work for is under attack and their jobs are at stake.

Most of the guys I worked with were damn good people, even some of the foremen. They were hard workers and most had families that loved them. Of course there are men who’d find every opportunity to plunge a knife in your back to get ahead, a practice which seems to have become more and more prevalent in recent years, but it's understandable. Coal miners are now forced to survive a work environment in which the company makes regular men compete for their job security, constantly hinting that “performance based” layoffs could be around the corner. None the less, coal miners are good people and only do what they have to do for their families.
Coal miners also have a lot to be proud of. Not many people can say they work miles underground with the constant danger of roof falls and explosions. Courage begets pride and some days it takes a lot of courage to take a man trip into the mines, especially when conditions on the section are terrible. Most miners realize a large piece of draw rock can take them out of this world at any moment but they are still driven to do the work. They know the risk comes with a paycheck capable of feeding, clothing, and sheltering their family. One such coal miner I worked with started in the mines at age 18. When I left he was still working after spending fifty years in the mines. His work ethic amazed me as he put in a hard twelve hours everyday, six days a week. He didn't slack either. Why was he still working the mines? He was doing it to send his granddaughter to college. He’d already sent his own children through college and now it was his granddaughters turn. Now that’s someone who’s looking to their children’s future.

I myself felt that coal miner’s pride until I had an especially close call with death. It caused me to think about life… my life, my family’s life, and my children's future. I began to reflect on everything that led me to stay in the mountains and continue the family tradition. Then I watched the documentary “Coal Country”  airing on satellite. Everything became clearer.  My sense of pride left me and I realized just how much mountain people (especially coal miners) were being taken advantage of by the wealthy. I realized how Wall Street was using us to not only to dig their coal for them, but also to get their way with regulatory agencies and politicians, forming a future that would benefit their bank accounts not our children.

I found there is a dark side to the industry we were working for, one that we often ignored or just didn’t know about as coal miners. I found the work we were doing was causing cancer, not just in us, but our families living in the coalfields and people living around coal fired power plants or anywhere else coal is processed and used. The coal industry doesn’t want people to know. They are trying to hide it, just like Pacific Gas and Electric tried to hide the hexavalent chromium contamination of the Hinkley, California municipal water supply. I began doing my own research and found out such things as…

The list goes on and I found out quickly these things weren’t lies being embellished by wacko environmentalists. They are truths and the people who stand to lose profits are willing to spend money to deny it. They are funding political campaigns and lobbying our politicians to have the laws meant to protect people from such harm reworded and molded to allow for their continued poisoning of the "less fortunate" people. They are even willing to spend money on organizations to convince the men working for them that all is well in their coalfields and to fight for their jobs against environmentalists. They tell us that without their industry our local economies would be devastated even though our communities have the highest poverty rates in our states and even the nation. They are diverting our attention away from a much bigger picture.
Martin County Kentucky
Coal miners are caught in the middle of an information battle between the well-funded coal industry and the often underfunded non-profit environmentalists. Whose fault is it that mines are being shut down? The coal company owners who know they are bending and breaking the environmental laws or the poor guy who’s water is being poisoned and gets environmentalist’s help to see the laws are properly enforced? If you had to worry about your source of water being contaminated or the land your family had lived on for generations being torn up forever, what would you do? I’d be making sure every law was being followed, wouldn’t you?
It’s hard to swallow but the truths are out there, even if cleverly hidden by the coal industry. Coal is keeping people in the coalfields poor and sick and if you don’t believe me, just start asking these questions…
  • Why don’t the coalfields get more of the coal severance tax money?
  • Why do coal communities keep coming up last in everything from education to healthcare?
  • Couldn’t some of that tax money be put back into our communities for better roads, more economic development, education, etc?
  • Why do coal and natural gas companies keep getting all the subsidies?
  • How come cancer rates and birth defects are higher in the coal fields?
  • How will the coal industry plan on finding coal miners in the future?
It bothers me at night and I keep asking myself, why do good hearted, hardworking coal miners keep giving everything while the coal industry keeps taking everything… taking their health, taking their children’s future, and even taking the mountains we call home?
A & G Coal Baden #1 Run Off

This is why I write, this is why I keep talking and acting, hoping that one day everyone in the coalfields will finally stand up and start getting what they deserve…. better schools, better roads, better health care, better job opportunities, cleaner water, and maybe even the chance to show their children the mountains we’ve survived in and loved for generations. It’s a lot better than taking them up on a grassy field and telling them what used to be there don’t ya think?

I’m sure many will read this and say, “He’s just another full of sh*t tree hugger.” I hope not. The truth is the truth. Don’t buy into the company bullsh*t. If you want your kids to lead good healthy lives start thinking about them and what they will face if we keep going in the direction the coal companies want us to. We know where they’ve gotten us so far…
In the end a coal miner is left to wonder who is right and who is wrong, the company who provides them a job or the environmentalists who are often viewed as a bunch of “tree hugging, bongo playing, hippies who don’t know what it’s like to work hard every day and support a family. ”

It’s pretty easy if you just take a moment think of what each side wants and/or stands to lose….

Coal Company = Profits
Environmentalist = A good healthy future for our children and plenty of clean water to drink.
So…. Which side are you on?
Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.