|By Matt Stone, The Courier-Journal) June 5, 2012|
Tuesday June 5th the EPA set up public hearings in Frankfort, Kentucky regarding 36 surface mining permits under question for environmental impacts to streams . Hundreds of miners and their families were brought up in charter buses, paid for by the Kentucky Coal Association and their “Friends of Coal” campaign to voice their opinions. They were wearing t-shirts telling the EPA to stop costing them their jobs, while coal industry advocates stood ready at tables to pass out literature, cups, and “Friends of Coal” stickers. Several state representatives took to the podium outside and preached how the men before them would suffer financial strife if the EPA keeps “over regulating” their industry. They preached how great coal has been to the people of Appalachian and the state of Kentucky and how without it they were nothing.
Looking out over the crowd of hundreds of coal miners I couldn’t help but wonder how many times the coal associations aka, the well paid political lobbying machine for the coal industry, had paid to bus miners and their families up to Frankfort or Washington, DC in order to support legislation for better safety laws? Did they ever pay such handsome amounts of money on t-shirts, stickers, and merchandise to support legislation that would ensure every miner stricken with black lung would get the proper healthcare and financial compensation they deserved after sacrificing their lungs to earn their profits?
Every man, woman, and child there had been double crossed. Every single one of them were being lied to. They were just the “crowd” and every coal company official who took to the podium, every politician who preached about protecting their livelihood was leaving out one little caveat, “until the coal market bottoms out at which time we’ll tuck tail and run and you’ll be left without a job anyway.”
The day following the June 7th EPA hearings in Pikeville, KY (two days after Frankfort) Alpha Natural Resources announced sweeping layoffs. I couldn’t tell you how enraged I was to hear this. For God’s sake they used miners and their families as examples to build political pressures against the EPA. The Appalachian people who will be affected will likely be told, “It’s because of the EPA.” These layoffs were being planned months before. I spoke to several of my friends who rebuild mining machinery and their orders (orders which are placed MONTHS in advance) had dropped and they are facing lay offs right now. The layoffs were going to happen and so they made them at the most opportune time to build their cause.
Right now the industry is once again revealing it’s cyclical boom and bust nature. After a 10 year boom, coal is on the decline. Miners and their families are certain to face financial uncertainty, just like my family did when all the mines shut down in the early 1990s.
Someone once described the boom and bust cycle to me in this way. When coal prices are low few mines are operating. The decreased production begins to slowly edge prices up. As demand increases so do the prices, and as prices go up coal mines all over Appalachia begin opening. Along with the new mines comes a large labor demand which drives up wages and benefits. As more and more mines open and millions more tons of coal are produced, supply eventually matches demand then exceeds it at which point coal prices plummet.
This latest coal boom worked out well and was prolonged by economic booms in China along with the natural disasters in Australia which significantly affected Australian coal exports. Now, the coal companies have more than just overseas competitors to affect the supply and demand nature of their industry. The oil and natural gas industry is cutting deeply into coal demand. Its become a corporate battle, one in which the people of Appalachia are caught in the middle. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the good people of Appalachia will always lose, but not before the industry takes every advantage of them it can.
For the coal industry, the downturn has become a golden opportunity to start blaming all of the things that cut into their profits. Last time they blamed the United Mine Workers who demanded better retirement and healthcare. In this coal bust the industry is sighting government regulation as the bottom line killer. They’ve done nothing but denounce the Environmental Protection Agency along with outside hippy treehuggers, and even the Mine Safety and Health Administration for slowing or stopping their production.
For the coal industry it’s a win win situation. Not only do they have the advantage of having a scape goat for the nature of their business in the eyes of their young employees, they are also gaining political power by convincing their employees to support organizations such of Friends of Coal, adding power to their already powerful government lobbying machine. It’s perfect. It would be like me going to someone, stealing their money, telling them the cops did it, and asking them to join an organization I created to stop the cops from doing their job. Brilliant isn’t it?
What the people of Appalachia have to remember is that coal companies do not care about them, they do not care about their families, and they do not care about the water they drink. They only care about the bottom line–always have and always will. When it comes between having a bad quarterly statement to show their stock holders vs. ridding themselves of the overhead of a few thousand desperate employees working in their mines, do you think they will honestly choose having the bad quarterly statement? After all–it’s just business.