By Terry Steele
April 19, 2017 - President Trump and legislators claim their priority is to help coal miners and coal communities that are in dire straights. But when Trump and others in Washington talk about supporting coal, they are really talking about coal executives: billionaire CEOs of companies who profited from our labor, plundered our land, and then collected hefty bonuses while laying off workers en masse in the name of bankruptcy. Take our dwindling retiree benefits as the latest example.
A fund set up over 70 years ago by the federal government and United Mine Workers of America, allocated to ensure miners working dangerous jobs would be protected from cradle to grave, is running dry. That's all because of bankruptcy laws that allowed companies to continue operations while relieving themselves of providing miners their hard-earned coverage. If Congress doesn't act by the end of this month, I will become one of 20,000 retired coal miners to lose health care and pension benefits I was promised from the day I set foot underground.
After working for 11 different coal companies in West Virginia over the course of 26 years - that's more than 50,000 hours spent underground, breathing in coal dust and putting my life on the line - I can say that providing the nation's "cheap" energy comes at a severe cost. From ruptured mountains to contaminated drinking water, black lung to explosions that take workers' lives, chemical facilities and massive slurry ponds that hover behind our schools and homes, the cost of coal is placed squarely on the shoulders of the communities where it is mined.
The sacrifices made by coal miners don't come to an end once we're out of work. In the 1990s, the advent of mountaintop removal in Appalachia - an even faster, "cheaper" method for companies to profit from coal - put our communities at new levels of risk we had never before faced outside the mines. This strip-mining process, which involves the daily detonation of millions of pounds of explosives to unearth beds of coal, releases clouds of toxic heavy metals, which poison our streams and cause outbreaks of cancer, brain tumors, birth defects and other illnesses. Our creeks and our wells run black, and houses and streets flood regularly because barren, leveled mountains can't absorb the rain or catch the wind during storms. Whether miners work in caverns underground or on strip mines up above, coal continues to impact our health, safety and communities long after we retire.
While environmental regulations have taken the heat for the coal industry's decline, the decrease in coal jobs was in fact caused by competition from cheaper natural gas, solar, and wind, as well as the automation of mining for mountaintop removal. Likewise, the replacement of men with machines is partially to blame for the erosion of pension plans that are based on "man-hours" at the mines. Trump says that the Congressional repeal of pollution regulations like the Stream Protection Rule and his attack on carbon emissions reductions will put miners back to work. But cutting health and safety precautions won't bring jobs back - it will only allow the industry to cut corners at the expense of our lives.
These are not just statistics. Hundreds of members of my local UMWA chapter have died over the past 10 years, many from pollution-related diseases like cancer, shrinking the Matewan chapter from more than 1,200 members to just 800.
In the past few months since he took office, Trump proposed cutting the Appalachian Regional Commission and began dismantling the Clean Power Plan - both of which could jumpstart new economic opportunities that provide alternate jobs, services and sources of energy for communities in West Virginia where coal isn't coming back. If Trump and Congress truly want to help the people that powered this nation, they should support policies to retrain coal miners, transitions to diverse economies in Appalachia, and care for former miners that need it now more than ever.
We do not need coal to survive. But we do need clean air, clean water and protections that were promised to retirees and their dependents - generations of Appalachians who already paid coal's steep price.
Terry Steele, a former coal miner, is a resident of Matewan, West Virginia.