Searching for Justice in Appalachia: Part II

Big Rock, VA Photo byNick Mullins

In my original post, I skirted along the edges of some personal beliefs that I often spare my readership, beliefs that I must admit, cause me to doubt myself and this work. As I mentioned in my first post, one of the downsides to being a justice advocate is realizing just how bleak the situation can be. I get up every morning, wondering if we can ever truly achieve justice.

Just to recap, coal companies have billions in assets, lawyers on retainer, political campaign contributions, and they own the majority of our resources in Appalachia. Coal companies use the money they make from our resources to hire marketing firms, pay for advertising time on TV networks, and print thousands upon thousands of Friends of Coal stickers to convince us they are benefiting our communities. For many of us, it’s a struggle just to pay our bills and buy food, let alone stand up against it. Continue reading

The Love of a Coal Mining Father

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Like many fathers living in central Appalachia, my dad didn’t have a lot of choices after he graduated high school. He couldn’t bare the thought of leaving his mountain home and all the family and places he’d always known. So he did what he could, going to work in the mines—risking his life and sacrificing his health to provide for his family.

There were times he loved his job, especially when he was working with a good crew in one of the safer union mines. But when the companies shut down all their union operations, he sacrificed more than he ever should have had to. After the South Mountain disaster that happened just down the road from where he was working, there were many nights I’d lay awake, waiting to hear his truck come up the driveway, worried he’d not come home again.

Today, I’d give anything for him to have his health back. I’d give anything for him to be able to take his grand-kids on long hikes in the woods, to take them squirrel hunting, or across the ridge to find morels in the spring.

The people who made their money off the coal our dad’s mined, didn’t deserve to take the best part of their lives and health.

Here’s to all the coal mining fathers out there, to your strength and kindness, to your love and sacrifices. I hope that one day no father will have to give up so much just to earn a decent living for their families.

Will supporting carbon capture help coal mining communities?

John E. Amos Power Plant

John E. Amos Power Plant – Photo by Nick Mullins

I just read an article stating the National Resource Defense Council and the Clean Air Task Force, two well known, well funded environmental organizations, are now showing support for carbon capture technology at coal fired power plants.

My question is, how will this help a just transition for Appalachia and other areas impacted by coal mining?

Let’s recap the coal industry’s impacts on their employees and local communities:

  • Billions of dollars of coal have left coal mining communities throughout the nation and those communities continue to be among the most economically depressed, unhealthiest, most disadvantaged areas in the nation.
  • Coal companies continuously seek ways to eliminate their debts to coal miners and their families by terminating retirement benefits including healthcare.
  • Coal companies spend money appealing black lung benefits awarded to coal miners.
  • Coal companies also get out of cleaning up the messes they leave behind, including acidic mine drainage, coal slurry impoundments, land subsidence, and terrible surface mine reclamation jobs.

In summation, aside from creating a handful of jobs that take away our long term health, the coal industry is a plague.

Supporting carbon capture gives lease to the coal industry so they may continue their operations. It is a poor solution to treating a symptom rather than addressing the source of our problems—excessive energy use. Why is it so difficult to implement and support behavior based energy efficiency education, and to invest in energy efficiency technology that could provide thousands of jobs?

Coal Miners Deserve Better

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(Photo by William F. Campbell/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In 1989, Pittston Coal (present day Alpha Natural Resources), eliminated the healthcare benefits of all it’s pensioners. This included retirees, disabled miners, and widows. It led to the last major UMWA strike centered in southwestern Virginia, just across the mountain from Eastern Kentucky. 1,400 miners walked off the job, sacrificing their paychecks to restore those benefits to men and women whose lives were given to coal mining.

The old cliche “As much as things change, they stay the same” couldn’t be truer this day in time.

Not only has the coal industry taken away the health benefits for pensioners again, thousands of miners who retired from union mines are facing the possibility of losing their health benefits and pensions. The reasons are many, and there are a lot of fingers being pointed right now. Some want to blame the United Mine Workers for poor fund management, others want to blame the coal companies for busting the unions and eliminating future income into those plans, and a few (including myself) are casting some blame towards the for-profit healthcare industry that’s gone overboard with unnecessary tests and hospital stays to increase their financial gain. In my opinion, it’s all of it, but in the end it doesn’t matter who is to blame. Everyone who has screwed this up has more money than any coal miner will ever see in their lifetime. Why should the coal miners be the ones to suffer the results?

The burden of fixing these problems now falls on the nation who has benefited from the cheap energy and steel that Appalachia has produced. It rests with people waking up to the facts and realizing that coal companies will continually work through corrupt politics to get out of their obligations to their workers.

People deserve better than what the coal companies will ever give them, they deserve some comfort and rest after pulling their time in the mines. Every coal miner should walk off the job tomorrow and not let another ounce of coal make it to market until our fathers and grandfathers are taken care of, until every miner from here on out has guaranteed healthcare, pensions, the right to stop work if things become unsafe, and the guarantee of a healthy severance package the next time a coal company pulls up stakes to save their own wealthy hind-ends.

Actually, everyone in this nation should be raising hell with their politicians. This latest chapter of screwing some of America’s hardest working people should send shock waves through the national consciousness and have everyone up in arms, or at least looking at the voting records of their politicians and jerking the ones out who don’t actually support the working people. Last I checked, there’s way more working people suffering than rich folks. People should be standing up for what’s right and just when it comes to labor and worker safety. Politicians are supposed to serve all the people, not just the ones who line their pockets.

TCM is now on YouTube

I started this blog some 6 years ago and it has gotten a decent amount of attention, but it still hasn’t reached the audience I’ve been hoping to speak to. In the last few months I’ve put a lot more effort into getting the message I’ve been preaching on this blog out to a larger audience. I’ve written an op-ed or two, an article, and rode the wave of media attention surrounding Trump, coal, and Appalachia, doing a few interviews with national media or directing them to other resources in the region. And of course working a bit in film and visual media.

I’ve spent the last month especially  starting a YouTube channel which I’m pleased to announce here on the blog today. Content is still a little slow coming, but stay tuned for weekly updates as I try to cover many of the topics I’ve covered here on the blog.

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Click HERE to go to the channel.

 

 

 

Trump Just Signed Away Underground Coal Mining Jobs

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Before coal miners begin rejoicing the end of “Obama’s War on Coal,” they should realize the war on their jobs isn’t over—that war began well before Barack Obama took the oath of office.

Amid the name calling, political propaganda, and willful ignorance that came as a result of coal industry’s “War on Coal” campaign, many Appalachian miners forgot a very important fact, their jobs have always been considered overhead on the company’s quarterly statements. Their job, like any other overhead such as the cost of supplies, fuel, equipment etc., is a drain on the company’s overall profit. Within our system of capitalism and free market economics, businesses must continually seek to reduce expenses (overhead) so they can increase their quarterly returns, satisfy their stockholders, and  compete with other companies on a global scale.

As Bruce Stanley stated in the new documentary film Blood on the Mountain, “Coal doesn’t want you to have a job, because coal does better if you don’t have a job.  That’s benefits that don’t have to be paid, that’s salaries that don’t have to be paid, that’s so when you’re broken and busted you don’t have to be cared for.”

If anything, Trump’s signature paved the way to reducing mining jobs in Appalachia by opening the floodgates on surface mining, a highly productive form of mining that requires fewer miners who can be paid lower wages. If a coal company can make a higher profit by surface mining, why would they be inclined to open and operate as many underground mines?

This has not been a win for coal miners, this has been another win for coal companies.


Need more proof of coal’s continued mechanization? See below.

While the stream protection rule that Trump and congress just eliminated did not directly impact this form of contour surface mining, it is important to realize that the coal industry is finding more ways to recover coal using fewer workers. The high wall miner featured in this video effectively replaces the need for many underground mines and larger surface mines. It only requires four employees to operate per shift.

Their Final Hours: Ten Years After the Sago Mine Disaster

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On this day ten years ago, thirteen men were still trapped following the explosion that rocked their mine over 28 hour before. Rescue efforts were in a state of disarray. The company, and many politicians, were busy doing damage control in front of the press to preserve their image.

But the men, those men who just went to work one morning to earn a living for their families, were facing the knowledge that they may never see their loved ones again. Being Appalachian family men, there is little doubt that their final moments of anguish—their final moments of fearwere not for their own souls, but for their families and the suffering they would endure in their absence.
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The Coal Industry in Our Public Schools

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There are many problems plaguing Appalachia today: underfunded school systems, poverty, drug abuse, negative stereotyping of Appalachia in the media, and today a severe downturn in coal demand within a mono-economy built upon coal extraction.

While many are looking to find alternative means to alleviate these problems by strengthening and diversifying the Appalachian economy, the coal industry is busy at work preparing the next generation of Appalachian coal miners dedicated to fighting the “War on Coal”.

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Without the Union…

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Photo by Nick Mullins

By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It  didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.

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Searching for Justice in Appalachia

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Flight – Williamson, West Virginia – Photo by Nick Mullins

Since leaving the mining industry six years ago, I’ve gone in search of justice for Appalachia. It has been a hard journey coping with the deepening realities of our situation and the staggering amount of damage that’s been inflicted upon our communities—culturally, economically, and environmentally. I’m not going to lie. There have been many times I’ve wanted to give up and just find a quiet little farm off to ourselves, but I can’t. Perhaps it’s sheer insanity, but I can’t stop fighting.

I realized early on that when the union left, much of the fight for justice in Appalachia left with it. The only people who seemed to care and continue the fight were the environmental organizations that came to stop mountain top removal. It was only natural that I would join in to see what I could do to help. While many were discounted as being out-of-touch and caring only about trees and salamanders, I knew their cause was much further reaching than environmental justice. They were also working to end the social and economic injustices being inflicted on us by the coal and natural gas industries.

I learned a great deal from my time spent working with organizations like Appalachian Voices and the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards . Because of their help and guidance, I was given the desire to create this blog and take a chance on a new life in Berea, Kentucky. I even applied to Berea College where I was accepted to attend one of the few tuition-free work colleges in the nation.

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