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Coal and Mountaintop Removal: That’s What I’m Talking About!
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by Jim Sconyers, Chapter Chair | 2010

Byrd, Kennedy, Blankenship, McIlmoil, Hansen, Hendryx Speak!

Seems like all of a sudden everyone’s talking about coal and mountaintop removal.

West Virginia’s favorite son and respected venerable icon, Senator Robert Byrd, had this to say in a recent op-ed and speech titled Coal Must Embrace the Future.

“The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal ...”

Many of us heard or saw the much ballyhooed “debate” in January between leading environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal. Was it a debate? Or was it more a case of these two trading talking points from their entrenched positions on the subjects of mountaintop removal and the future of coal?

Sorry to say, it would appear quite doubtful that either one changed the other’s mind on their fundamental differences. Blankenship: Coal is clean, safe, well regulated, and provides paychecks for many West Virginians. Kennedy: Coal is the dirtiest energy source of all, mountaintop removal is an illegal and immoral disaster to people and the environment, clean renewable energy is ready to replace coal.

Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen of the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies in Morgantown released a new report getting a lot of attention in the state and nation. Titled The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification, they reach some convincing conclusions:

• “Coal production in Central Appalachia is on the decline, and this decline will likely continue in the coming decades...”

• “These declines in production are due to three primary factors: increased competition from other coal-producing regions and sources of energy; the depletion of the most accessible, lowestcost coal reserves; and environmental regulations.”

• “While it is still not known whether a federal carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program will be implemented, new climate change laws or regulations are likely to significantly impact the future demand for coal...”

• “Given the numerous challenges working against any substantial recovery of the region’s coal industry, and that production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State and local leaders should support new economic development across the region...”

In a new study, Michael Hendryx, public health researcher at WVU, explodes the myth that coal is good for the people or communities or economy of West Virginia. He clearly makes the case that the cost in dollars and cents of severe health impacts and premature deaths exceeds any tax, wage, and other financial benefits from coal many times over.

Enough said? Perhaps. But here’s how I see it. I believe nearly all of us agree on certain basic facts. • Coal is a dirty energy source. It causes significant harm to human and natural communities when it is mined and burned.

• The future of coal is not promising. Demand is falling and expected to continue to do so.

• Coal cannot be relied on to provide the employment and tax base in West Virginia in the future that it has in the past.

• Many West Virginians depend today on jobs in coal mining to support themselves and their families.

To me it’s as if I went to the debate and declared both sides the winner. You over there, you’re right. And you over there, you’re right.

So obviously, we must be asking the wrong questions, and coming up with the wrong answers. Is coal good/bad? Do we “stay the course,” pursue “business as usual,” put on the blinders, keep on going just as we are today? Let’s hope not.

What is so very sorely lacking is the leadership we need. Leadership to acknowledge the problems, and to begin creating workable solutions. Normally, we the citizens would expect this leadership to come from those we, wisely or stupidly, choose to fill our public leadership positions — the governors, Congresspersons, etc.

And how’s that working out for you? Not so good.... The governor meets secretly with industry. When he deigns to meet with citizens from the affected communities he claims to “hear their pain” one day and badmouths them the next. But he’s an avowed Friend of Coal, so no surprises there. Congressionals? Other than Senator Byrd’s statement, they seem as intent as the governor on fanning the flames, demonizing, and haranguing against change and progress. Senator Rockefeller is as good a friend as coal could ask for, and of course all three of our Representatives were front and center to join Congress’s new Coal Caucus.

The status quo is manifestly untenable. We need better leadership, men and women with the vision and determination to see a bright future for West Virginia. We need that bright future — and we deserve it.

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