The Fight Against Coal Can Save Miners’ Lives

(Photo: AP/David Goldman)

Coal miner Scott Tiller prepares to head into an underground mine in Welch, West Virginia, on May 12, 2016.

With his executive order repealing the clean energy policies of the Obama administration, President Donald Trump seems determined to undo all the climate progress of the past eight years. But Trump’s order, a misguided attempt to increase coal production, won’t bring back the mining jobs he vowed to resurrect. Even if every environmental regulation were repealed, those jobs aren’t coming back.

Nor is that an unmitigated tragedy for miners. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, expanding coal mining is as bad for workers and communities as it is for the environment.

Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and nearly a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 were just from coal combustion. From a climate perspective, there is no doubt that coal mining should be phased out. Yet it is also true that coal mining should be phased out to protect workers and communities. From the beginning, coal mining exploited workers and communities.

For nearly 70 years in the post-Civil War South, tens of thousands of incarcerated men were forced to work in coal mines. The vast majority were black men convicted of minor offenses or “Black Code” statute violations that were passed to reassert white control in the aftermath of the Civil War. The state of Alabama provided incarcerated individuals to businesses across the state, especially mines, until nearly 1930. The men were forced to cut and load one to four tons of coal per day to avoid being whipped. Tennessee Coal paid $18.50 per month in 1897 for a “first-class” prisoner, who had to cut and load four tons of coal a day, and $9 a month for a “dead hand,” who had to produce at least one ton per day. The men themselves received no compensation and were “subjected to squalid living conditions, poor medical treatment, scant food and frequent floggings.”

The mining industry didn’t stop at exploiting incarcerated individuals. Children as young as eight worked in the coal mines in the early part of the 20th century. A series of laws raised the age to 14 and the Federal Child Labor Law signed by President Wilson in 1916 banned the sale of any products from mines that employed children under the age of 16. While the Bureau of Mines was established in 1910, it was not given authority to inspect mines until 1941.

To this day, coal mines remain dangerous workplaces, and the sanctions for safety violations don’t seem to matter much. Coal-mine operators have racked up millions of dollars in safety-violation penalties, which often go unpaid. A 2014 NPR and Mine Safety and Health News investigation found that over the preceding 20 years, thousands of mine operators failed to pay safety penalties; indeed, most unpaid penalties were between two and ten years overdue. Among the study’s findings, the 2,700 mining company owners failed to pay almost $70 million in delinquent penalties and mines that didn’t pay their penalties had a 50 percent higher injury rate.

Even when mines are in compliance with health and safety regulations, mine workers are still at great risk. A recent comprehensive report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that after a long period of declining rates of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also known as black lung disease), rates of the disease are now rising. Black lung disease is being seen in miners younger than 50. For many years, the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which strengthened safety and health standards and dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines, worked to reduce the incidence of the disease. The report posits that the recent increase in black lung disease rates is due to multiple factors, including miners’ exposure to increased coal mine dust levels and for longer durations. The inability of the 1969 act to protect these coal miners from a lifelong debilitating disease indicates that the legislation’s protections are inadequate to the conditions in today’s mines or, as evidenced by the high level of safety violations, are not being enforced—or both.

Mineworkers and the United Mineworkers of America have fought continually for better working conditions, better pay, and better benefits. Historically, better pay and improved working conditions came about through strikes and actions organized by the union. A Stanford University study published in 2012 found that unionized mines were substantially safer than non-unionized mines. Among the findings, the study found that unionization predicts an 18 percent to 33 percent drop in traumatic injuries and a 27 percent to 68 percent drop in fatalities. However, the number of mines that are unionized is on the decline. For the first time in nearly a century, unionized mines have completely disappeared in Kentucky.

Adding to the collapse of union mines, coal mining in general is on the decline due to decreased demand. The mining industry contends environmental regulation is responsible for the decreasing demand for coal. In reality, several factors have led to the decline, the most significant being the natural gas boom, which restructured the energy landscape. In recent years, natural gas became cheaper and cheaper, and in 2016 surpassed coal “as the leading fuel on an annual basis for the first time on record.” Coal production is unlikely to return to peak levels even if natural gas prices increase, because coal plants are being taken off line. In just one year, 2015, nearly 5 percent of all coal-powered plants were retired. While there are a few coal plants currently planned or under construction, far more have been canceled or delayed.

Even before the natural gas boom, employment in the coal industry was shrinking. Coal production peaked in 2008 but automation caused the workforce to decline for many decades before 2008. Between 1987 and 2004, well before there was an Obama administration to enact any regulations, the nation’s coal workforce fell from 151,000 workers to 71,000 workers. Since that time, unemployment in coal country has increased steadily, leaving parts of West Virginia and Kentucky with double-digit unemployment.

The economic anxieties common to the region and the industry have led many to believe in a false dichotomy between creating jobs or preserving the environment. Either we expand coal mining to increase employment and revitalize communities, at the expense of environmental and climate protection, or we have ambitious policies that decrease greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst impacts of climate change at the expense of workers’ livelihoods. In reality, these two fates are intertwined. The interests that exploit coal miners and coal communities are the same interests that are among the top contributors to climate change. Those of us who seek to reduce climate change must also come up with alternative livelihoods for miners that break their dependence on an industry that exploits and endangers them. The fight against coal is an environmental concern and a workers’ rights concern.

Given the Trump administration’s devotion to expanding fossil fuel extraction, it will be challenging, to say the least, for mine workers to align with environmentalists and oppose expanding coal mining. The key to building this coalition would be a plausible, robust program that will transition workers and communities away from coal. Economists Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci have set out a plan that would ensure a just transition away from a polluting economy for fossil fuel workers. The plan calls for a $50 billion annual public investment for an overall climate stabilization program that would substantially reduce carbon emissions through energy efficiency measures and dramatically increase renewable energy production. One percent of the $50 billion, $500 million, would be dedicated to transitioning fossil fuel workers by fully funding retirement and health benefits, providing wage and benefit support for current workers when they are displaced, and funding for green investments in former fossil fuel communities.

Moreover, this kind of plan can actually provide more employment for workers than expanding coal operations can, because the automation of coal mining has led to more coal being mined with fewer workers. In 1980, coal mining productivity was 1.93 short tons per miner hour. By 2015, that number had jumped to 6.28 short tons per miner hour. In turn, employment in the coal industry declined 59 percent from 1980 to 2015. In fact, coal creates far fewer jobs per million dollars invested than any form of renewable energy. For every million dollars invested in the coal industry, seven direct and indirect jobs are created. By comparison, every million dollars invested in the solar industry creates 14 direct and indirect jobs.

In the broadest sense, these aren’t challenges unique to coal country. Inequality and climate change impact every community. We must move forward in a way that addresses both issues to the benefit, and not exclusion, of workers and the environment.

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