By Lee Buchsbaum

The continued inconsistency and uncertainty throughout the coal mining regions of Appalachia has caused increased polarization and political action by its citizens, many who feel under siege by their elected government officials. With the general economy not improving and job creation stagnating, support for the federal government’s environmental policies that are delaying permits and potentially preventing coal from being mined is rapidly eroding. As voters are being wooed by politicians from a variety of parties, the coal miner was both heard and solicited at the September “Stand Up for Coal Jobs Rally” held adjacent to the Capital building in Washington, D.C.

While covering the demonstration, various media sources cited a study published in May by Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that concluded the EPA regulations put one in every four coal jobs in the region at risk. The study estimated nearly 18,000 jobs, and about 80 small businesses were tied to the 190 permits under enhanced review at the time. Only a small handful of permits have been granted in the months since. In fact, as more and more permits are held up and other federal government practices cause uncertainty for continued productivity, coal buyers and investors are also getting nervous about the future of Appalachian steam coal.

Caught in the crossfire once again between suspect environmental goals, economics and shortsighted politicians is the American coal miner. And ground zero for Obama’s green supporters is Central Appalachia: Logan, Hazard, Pikeville, Williamson, Grundy, Jellico, Gilbert and dozens of other similar coal mining communities. Their economies, infrastructures, citizens and future all hang in the balance. As more and more traditional buyers of the region’s coal turn away from it in favor of Illinois Basin or other coals—let alone turn away from coal itself—Appalachia’s path forward could grow very dark.

Strangulation by Regulation, Politicians Come Out Swinging Against Obama
For things to change in Appalachia for the better, the wheel of politics will have to turn once again, hopefully back in the favor of the region’s coal miners. Coal state politicians generally recognize their constituents are demanding action to prevent further job and quality of life losses. Whether they will be able to do anything to change the situation remains to be seen. But a step in the right direction came just prior to the rally with the introduction of the “Electricity Reliability Protection Act of 2010” (HR 6113). Sponsored by Reps. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), Jimmy Duncan (R-Tenn.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Zack Space (D-Ohio), Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) and Don Young (R-Alaska), this new legislation is designed to block the use of funds by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies to carry out the EPA’s “guidance” on Appalachian coal mining.

At the rally in D.C., the new Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said more than 30 permits throughout the region have been withdrawn over EPA environmental concerns. Claiming thousands of other permits could be retroactively affected, Bissett called the regulations a “two-fold attack” on the industry. He said the new framework has put mining firms’ investment on hold, as well as that of outside investors. “Everything’s in limbo,” he said.

Politicians from all levels and both parties appeared before the crowd and ironically, some of the toughest statements against Washington were made by other Democrats. Virginia Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) hammered the message: “We are not going to let the EPA regulate coal out of business.”

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, who is also running for the late Senator Robert Byrd’s seat, first met with a contingent of miners from southern West Virginia for a pep talk at the capital steps in Charleston as they passed through on their way from Logan. The following morning he spoke passionately at the Washington rally. “Everyone that enjoys the great freedoms of this country needs to pay attention and thank a coal miner every night,” Manchin said. “It’s through that miner’s hard work that this country has the reliable, plentiful and affordable energy it needs to be strong and free.”

Though Manchin is a Democrat, he has been a frequent critic of the current Obama administration and its anti-coal policies. At the rally, he exhorted those in attendance to “stand up and be heard” and said, “President Obama is wrong on cap-and-trade. Lisa Jackson is wrong on the EPA’s attack on our energy. We are fighting right now for coal miners throughout the nation. Though they promised they’d work with us, now they are working against us. We’ll have hundreds of coal miners without jobs because of this administration’s actions.”

This view was echoed by speakers across the boards. “This administration is trying to shut down coal and fire all of you,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., adding the EPA was practicing “strangulation by regulation. There are dozens and dozens of mine permits this administration is saying no to just simply by not acting. Well, we are here with you to say to this administration: ‘wisen up’—because coal runs this country.”

Rogers took the opportunity while addressing the crowd to announce he and 11 others in Congress had introduced legislation, HR 6113 or the Electric Reliability Protection Act, he said would function to stop further EPA regulations. “This bill would stop the EPA’s power grab and put Appalachian coal miners back to work,” Rogers said. “Today we are sending a message to unelected bureaucrats that they will not regulate us out of business.” The newly introduced HR 6113 would, if passed, prohibit the EPA from executing new regulatory guidance until going through the formal rule-making process that would include public comment.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., labeled the current administration as “activist” and that it and the current Congress combined are the most anti-coal in history. “Coal is under assault in this town [Washington, D.C.]. We must continue to keep up the fight to protect the tens of thousands of Kentucky jobs that rely on coal,”said McConnell. “Let’s send them a message on November 2!”

We Don’t Need a Bailout, We Don’t Need a Stimulus. We Just Need a Work Permit
The goal for the Stand Up for Coal Jobs rally was to attract thousands of miners and supporters from throughout America’s coal-producing states—especially those most affected by the EPA’s crackdown on surface mining in Appalachia—to come to Washington to exercise their First Amendment right “to peacefully assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Citizens for Coal, the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security (FACES) of Coal and the West Virginia Coal Association were the principle organizers for the event, though there were representatives and speakers from a larger consortium of pro-coal organizations.

“The permit delays are causing the elimination of jobs across Appalachia,” said Bryan Brown, executive director, FACES of Coal. “At a time when the nation is trying to get people back to work, these policies are threatening to take people’s jobs away.” The event organizers claimed a total of 34 buses carried supporters from five states and the crowd totaled about 3,500 demonstrators.

It was a beautiful sight to see: pouring forth from dozens of buses, thousands of coal miners, their families, friends and supporters streamed through Washington’s Union Station almost all adorned in blue T-shirts provided by FACES and other groups. Wearing slogans like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” and “Stand Up for Coal,” coal miners young and old hollered and applauded, laughed and shouted as speaker after speaker addressed the crowd.

Roger Horton, a haul truck driver at Patriot Coal’s Guyan mine with more than 30 years under his belt, is also director of the grassroots activist group Citizens for Coal. He helped orchestrate the demonstration “because we need to pressure the current administration into listening to our concerns. For some time we have had extreme difficulty in achieving permit status for a lot of the operations in the Appalachian Basin and we have been trying to get the current EPA to listen and work with us. They’ve done nothing but stonewall us. I think the entire world understood today we’re no longer going to lie down and take this so congenially. We’re going to move as much as we can, as strongly and forcefully as we can, and make sure they understand we’re Americans first, coal miners second. All we want to do is work. We don’t want a handout, we just want to work,” said Horton.

Hailing from Baseville, Ky., Alan Ashley works as a mining engineer for International Coal Group (ICG). Alan journeyed to Washington because “there are so many mining jobs at stake now due to the EPA’s actions or lack of actions. Without the permits we need, we can’t mine coal. So we’re slowly losing jobs. It’s not a real abrupt thing, but it’s happening every day more and more. You can see it.”

Sean Heathen, a mechanic who works at a TECO mountaintop mine, came to Washington “to let the people know what coal miners do is the only economy we have. We don’t have other alternatives. Until there is a better option, this is what we have and I’m here to represent and stand up for those who couldn’t be here and heard today.”

Eric Hess, a safety director for the Imperial mine in Buchanan, W.Va., with more than 15 years of mining experience came to Washington to support coal which he feels is under attack. “It’s getting regulated so badly these days. We have jobs in West Virginia waiting for folks, but we have to have permits in order for folks to start working. The EPA is dragging its feet and people are suffering.”

Miner Ronald Nelson, who made the trip from Lincoln County, W.Va., feels the EPA intends to abolish all forms of coal mining, not just surface or mountaintop mining. Like so many of his co-workers he worries whether the Patriot Coal surface mine where he is employed will receive the needed permits to continue mining. He traveled to D.C. because “we want to tell Washington, ‘We don’t need a bailout, we don’t need a stimulus. We just need a work permit,’” he said.

Beyond political and coal association representatives, the audience was also treated to a short performance from country music singer Stella Parton and coal miner and musician Gary Fields. Fields of Raccoon, in Pike County, is a veteran coal miner and musician who has written and continues to record an album of 10 songs, many about the current climate between the coal industry and the EPA, and its push for new regulations, lawmakers and President Obama’s administration. Fields said what he felt through his guitar and his song, “Coal Mining Man.”  

“I wrote this song for all you politicians setting up there in Washington, D.C. You ought to be hugging one of these coal miners instead of hugging on a tree…We owe it all to the coal mining man/He’s the one that lights up this land/Obama needs to under-stand/We’re America’s coal mining men…,” sang Fields.

On the long bus ride back home to Logan, W.Va., Eric Seibel, a field manager for reserve holder Kentucky Development, reflected on what he’d witnessed. “I saw about 3,000 citizens from the coalfields go to the Capital and give their opinions. I see [Obama and the water quality standards] shutting the coal industry down and destroying this country. They look for such minute parts and they passed their laws so they could find those minute traces. They’re trying to stop the mining industry with it. I think the Appalachian voice needs to be heard. Unless you’ve come to southern West Virginia, the vision this country is being shown and told is not true. They’ve got visions of us stripping away our entire state. There’ll be a very small percentage of mountains stripped. It’s a way of life and if you stop that you’re shutting America down, you’re closing down this country.”

Fighting for Coal: Taking the Next Step
“The message is clear: those of us in the coal industry must fight for our jobs, just as career politicians fight for their jobs. Those in office can keep those jobs by listening and standing up with courage and frankness to fight for their constituents’ livelihoods with the same tenacity as they defend their own seat of power,” said Roger L. Nicholson, ICG vice president, secretary and general counsel in a Charleston Gazette op-ed that coincided with the demonstration.

The day after the rally, September 16, National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn issued the following statement upon the introduction of new legislation, titled the Washington Saw the FACES and Heard the Voices of Coal.

“America’s coal miners, their families and strong and united coal communities that supply nearly half of our nation’s electricity—at a rally yesterday on the U.S. Capitol grounds. They called for action, rather than continued delay, on mining permits that are needed to keep them on the job and to continue providing American businesses and households the affordable and reliable energy we all need,” said Quinn.

“Rep. Hal Rogers and his bi-partisan group of co-sponsors have answered that call with legislation that will end EPA’s energy and jobs moratorium. Permits delayed are jobs denied. HR 6113 would stop the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of Surface Management from implementing the EPA’s permitting guidance, which violates numerous federal laws, and is based on bad science,” said Quinn.

“The mining community applauds the actions taken by these House members, and we call upon their colleagues to join in support of a lawful and science-based process that will keep Americans on the job and provide affordable electricity throughout our economy,” said Quinn.

No matter what is said in Washington, Horton reminded, the fight for coal must continue at every level. “We understand the very nature of our work is somewhat controversial, but only those who will take the time and listen will be fully able to understand. We’re doing the very best we can do to provide the energy this country so desperately needs. We’re also in agreement with the rest of the world that there has to be, at some point in time, a transition from fossil-based fuels. But the process that’s trying to be initiated at this point is not realistic.” Horton, like so many others, is appalled that there has been no alternative presented to the citizens of the region, no viable post-mining plan—if that is the true aim of the administration. Fearing, in fact, there is none Horton has no plans to stop marching anytime soon.

For those interested in becoming part of the movement, Horton invites folks to contact his organization at www.citizensforcoal.com. “I will happily let them know how they can help. There will be more rallies nationwide. Coal is under siege.”

Buchsbaum is a Denver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in industrial subjects. He can be reached through his Web site at www.lmbphotography.com or by phone at 303-746-8172.