State Senator Jared Carpenter sat across his desk within the capitol annex of the Kentucky State Capitol, his smile was the same I imagined he greeted customers with at the First Southern National Bank in Richmond, Kentucky. It is Valentine’s Day of 2013, a day selected by the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to lobby for the health and safety of Appalachian communities. I sat beside John Wright-Rios who had set up the meeting.
I’m already annoyed by the “Friends of Coal” license plate proudly displayed on Carpenter’s bookshelf, along with a roll of “I ♥ Coal” stickers, both likely given to him by coal’s well-funded corporate lobbying force known as the Kentucky Coal Association. Carpenter was the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, according to his website “His ascension to the position made him one of the fastest rising committee chairs in the chamber, and one of the youngest. Through his work on the committee, he has gained attention for his work on behalf of Kentucky coal and for taking a strong stand against President Obama and his EPA.” Coal has a lot of power in the state capitol, perhaps more than the 4 million residents living in the state.
Regardless of the uphill battle to put people before coal industry profits, we try, even after passing dozens of representatives, senators, and lobbyists wearing the same stickers that spilled from their roll on Carpenter’s bookshelf.
“Did you take that tour in to coal country you said you were going to take last year?” My casual tone was much friendlier than I felt.
Carpenter’s smile grew a little larger. “I sure did and I learned a lot. We went into an underground mine and I watched a couple of men run a roof bolter. That’s some hard work they do. I have a lot of respect for them.”
His words grated on me. He’d never worked in the coal mines, he didn’t know what hard work was, but I steeled myself and avoided confrontation.
“It’s definitely hard work. A lot of the miners get hurt doing it. The person I started roofbolting with was only in his late twenties and was already having a lot of back and shoulder issues. ”
“Well, that’s with any industry.” He said, his smile only fading a little.
It was a programmed response, one I’d heard before from other politicians and coal industry supporters. It is their way of downplaying the pain and suffering caused by the “jobs” they so proudly provide.
As you would imagine, their statements are untrue….
Take a moment to read over this fact sheet below, published on the United States Department of Labor – Bureau of Labor Statistics website in April of 2010:
Coal mining is a relatively dangerous industry. Employees in coal mining are more likely to be killed or to incur a non-fatal injury or illness, and their injuries are more likely to be severe than workers in private industry as a whole, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Coal mining is part of the Mining sector along with other mining and extractive industries such as oil and gas. Coal mining is further divided into Bituminous coal underground mining, Bituminous coal and lignite surface mining, and Anthracite mining. Bituminous coal underground mining employs slightly more than half of all coal mining industry workers, but experiences a higher share of occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.
The rate of fatal injuries in the coal mining industry in 2007 was 24.8 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, nearly six times the rate for all private industry. This represents a 57 percent decrease from the 2006 rate of 58.1 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. Fatal injuries in 2006 included the Sago mine disaster.
Rates of fatal occupational injury in 2007:
Total private industry: 4.3 cases per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers
Coal mining: 24.8 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers
There were 28 fatal injuries in coal mining in 2007, down from an average of 31 fatalities per year from 2003 to 2006. In 2007, 20 fatalities (or 71 percent of all fatalities in coal mining) were in bituminous coal underground mining. Contact with objects and equipment and transportation incidents were the most frequent fatal events with 18 and 5 fatal injuries respectively.
The rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in coal mining in 2008 was 4.4 cases per 100 full-time workers, 13 percent higher than for total private industry. In bituminous coal underground mining, the rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses was 66 percent higher than that of all private industry. Bituminous and lignite surface mining had a rate that was 49 percent lower than all private industry. Anthracite had a rate 59 percent higher than all private industry, but a very small number of cases.
Total nonfatal injury and illness incidence rates in 2008:
Total private industry: 3.9 cases per 100 full-time workers
Coal mining: 4.4 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal underground mining: 6.5 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal and lignite surface mining: 2.0 per 100 full-time workers
Anthracite mining: 6.2 per 100 full-time workers
More serious injuries and illnesses require days away from work to recuperate. In coal mining, the rate of injuries and illnesses with days away from work was 2.6 per 100 full-time workers in 2008, more than twice the rate for the private sector as a whole. The bituminous coal underground mining rate was 3.9 per 100 full-time workers, more than three times the total private industry rate.
Rates of injuries and illnesses with days away from work in 2008:
Total private industry: 1.1 cases per 100 full-time workers
Coal mining: 2.6 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal underground mining: 3.9 per 100 full-time workers
Bituminous coal and lignite surface mining: 1.2 per 100 full-time workers
Anthracite mining: 4.7 per 100 full-time workers
The number of median days away from work is a measure of the severity of injuries and illnesses. Workers in coal mining and bituminous coal underground mining were away from work due to occupational injuries or illnesses longer than the 8 median days experienced by all private industry workers. Fractures, which frequently require long recuperations, account for 19 percent of all injuries and illnesses in coal mining, compared to 8 percent in all private industry.
Median days away from work in 2008:
Total private industry: 8 median days away from work
Coal mining: 31 days
Bituminous coal underground mining: 34 days
Fractures, all private industry: 28 days
The report speaks for itself. Despite such facts, the attitudes of oi politicians like Carpenter remain the same. Their understanding begins and ends with revenue sheets and political polls.
Carpenter and I went round for round, his “banker’s” smile still as friendly. He gave me this ultimatum, “Next time you visit, bring me a way to solve the economic problems of Eastern Kentucky.” He had completely ignored the wonderful advice given to him by Miles, a member of our group in 7th Grade. Mile’s spoke like an adult despite his age, having picked up on what his parents had been doing to solve the economic problems of Eastern Kentucky through their jobs within the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and Appalachian Transitions. Sadly, his hard hitting facts and powerful suggestions fell on deaf ears. MACED and Appalachian Transitions does not have the money to fill campaign coffers like the Kentucky Coal Association.
We left Carpenter’s office having gained nothing. On our way back to debrief the larger group, I came across Rocky Adkins, House Majority Floor Leader and representative from Eastern Kentucky, standing in the hall speaking with lady who wore an “I ♥ Coal”sticker.
“I couldn’t help but notice your sticker ma’am. Why do you love coal?” I said.
Rocky Adkins spoke up before she could answer and he gestured at the lights, “Well, it gives us these lights and it gives people jobs!”
“Well, it hasn’t been quite that great for my family. My father injured his back in the mines and now suffers every day because of it. I have an uncle who some days has to lie on his stomach on the floor most of the day because it was the only way he could get relief from his back injury he’d had in the mines. My cousin has wasted away to nothing because of his pain and his injury in the mines.”
“That’s unfortunate,” he said. Another programmed response.
What is unfortunate is the way coal miners and their families have become “jobs,” a means to a vote that will keep politicians in their capitol offices and coal company stock holders in their gated communities. How could anyone ask someone to give so much of themselves, to risk life and limb, to give up their long term health, all to maintain their status within society? If they truly cared for the people of Appalachia as I do, they would never ask someone to sacrifice their health doing such a dangerous job—they would instead seek alternatives for them, they would find was to give the people they represent a good and happy life for their families without health concerns. They would be investing in energy efficiency technologies to solve our unnecessary energy demands and to employ thousands of coal miners who must use up their bodies to put food on the table.
But this is not the way of progress for the people who do so well within the halls of state and national capitols. In their world, some people are meant to own coal mines, some people are meant to be politicians, and some people are meant to be coal miners.