Residents support cleaner jobs, healthier WV at EPA hearings - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Residents support cleaner jobs, healthier WV at EPA hearings

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Since the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed the Clean Power Plan on June 2, West Virginia has audibly and collectively fought back.

But this week, a side of the state that often goes unheard was given a voice by a few West Virginians who took part in the hearings being held across the country to show support for the EPA ruling.

Industry in Decline

Many industry leaders and local lawmakers have dubbed the EPA rule the latest battle in a “War on Coal,” stating that the agency is attempting to oust the coal industry in its entirety, neglecting Appalachia’s needs in the process.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, for example, said the agency is neglecting the historical success of coal use in the United States.

“The EPA’s proposed rules are simply crippling the coal-burning utilities that make electricity in this country,” he said. “America has more coal than any country in the world.”

Raney suggested it would be better for the federal government to try to make emissions reductions goals to include coal use, “but they’re simply going to get rid of it.”

Mountain State residents in favor of the rule, however, say the “War on Coal rhetoric” is dramatic.

“If President Obama is waging a war on coal, he’s going about it all wrong,” said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, and one of a few West Virginians who attended the EPA hearing in Pittsburgh to generally support the rule.

“None of us have said we’re going to stop all coal production and shut down all coal fired generation immediately … and that’s ridiculous,” he said. “The real reduction in coal demands are not driven by the EPA, they’re driven more by the natural gas industry, cheaper western coal, foreign markets and things like that.”

A May 2013 Downstream Strategies report, “The Continuing Decline in Demand for Central Appalachian Coal: Market and Regulatory Influences,” found that the Central Appalachian coal industry and the communities that depend on coal jobs and revenues are facing numerous challenges. Those include: the depletion of the region’s most productive coal reserves, declining labor productivity, rising coal prices, increasing rates for coal-generated electricity and increasing competition from other coal basins, natural gas and renewable energy technologies.

The report went on to note Central Appalachian coal production reached an all-time peak of 294 million tons in 1990 and peaked a second time at 291 million tons in 1997. Since then, production has declined by 29 percent in southern West Virginia, 55 percent in Tennessee, 44 percent in eastern Kentucky and 37 percent in Virginia.

“The coal industry is not going to recover,” said Dustin White, a community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and another Pittsburgh hearing attendee from West Virginia. “The coal industry has always been a boom and bust economy; we’ve hit our last boom and it’s going down from here.”

Between 2011 and 2012, U.S. coal production decreased by a dramatic 7.2 percent, driven by lower electric power sector demand, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, and coal consumption decreased by 11.3 percent. In Central Appalachia alone, the EIA projects production will decline by 53 percent from 2011 through 2040, with 86 percent of the decline projected to occur by 2020.

“The coal industry is going away whether the EPA does something or not,” White added.

Rough Transition

Contrary to the arguments that the coal market is naturally in decline, those in opposition to the rule often attribute closing mines and failing power plants to emissions restrictions put in place by environmental agencies.

In response to the hearings, the West Virginia Coal Association, along with other coal associations and state officials including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, hosted a July 30 rally in Pittsburgh to voice their view on the importance of coal miners to the country’s energy mix. Additionally, the United Mine Workers of America hosted a July 31 rally in Pittsburgh to protest the potential job loss associated with the EPA rule.

“This rule will cost thousands of jobs of those who mine, transport and burn coal to generate electricity,” Cecil E. Roberts, UMWA International president, said in a statement. “Even the EPA doesn’t dispute that. The agency says that other jobs will be created by this rule, but they won’t be in the coalfields and they won’t have the levels of pay and benefits that our members earn.

“Our members want to know what lies in the future for their families and their communities, but so far the EPA has no answers.”

Advocates of the rule have proposed to lessen the blow to families dependent on the mining industry by implementing job transition training programs designed to help coal miners to move into energy efficiency jobs, such as energy auditing and construction contracting.

“No one wants to see somebody lose their job. We feel there are job opportunities with energy efficiency policies,” said Bill Price, an organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We think the Clean Power Plan is just a transition that takes into account the loss of jobs by replacing those jobs with energy efficiency jobs over a period of time.

“The sky is not falling just because they issued this plan.”

More than 33,000 West Virginians were employed in the mining and logging sector this May, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data — however, that’s less than 4.3 percent of the state’s labor force.

“In West Virginia, only about 5 percent or less is employed by the coal industry,” Haltom said. “We could create many more good-paying, clean, renewable energy jobs if only we had the will to do it.

“Just by implementing readily available methods in technology — we’re not talking rocket science, we’re talking caulking guns — we could provide West Virginia with 19,000 new jobs,” he added. “Even if every coal miner in West Virginia got laid off, each of them could be trained to do energy audits, and that’s where the jobs can go. But West Virginia does not have the political will to let go of King Coal’s political hold.”

But those in opposition disagree; Phil Smith, a spokesman for UMWA, said that those jobs simply aren’t comparable.

“People talk about transition, but I would like to see a demonstrable example of where that has worked in this country,” he said, adding that such examples don’t exist. “Mine workers are going to be asked to take jobs that pay less than half of what they’re making now. That’s not a just transition.”

Raney, too, fought back against this notion, saying that the transition is easier said than done.

“For people mining coal, there are no other employment opportunites where they are,” Raney said. “They want to stay where they are and raise their children where they were raised.

“They don’t want to do anything else. They’re the best coal miners in the world.”

Cost of Human Health

Many West Virginians have faced the devastating effects that coal mining can have on the miners themselves as well as the residents who live in these communities — and a few Mountain State residents have set out to ask the EPA for help.

Measure of America’s 2013-2014 Human Development Index placed West Virginia, tied with Alabama, as second-last in average life expectancy, with the average Mountain State resident living 75.4 years in 2010. In addition, the United Health Foundation ranked the state 46th in overall health in 2013, with high rates of cancer deaths, cardiovascular deaths, occupational fatalities, premature deaths and air pollution playing major roles in lowering the state’s ranking.

Raney argued, “A working West Virginian is a healthier West Virginian.”

But to White, whose father was an underground coal miner and died of cancer at age 65, that rationale doesn’t cut it: “The reality is public health is more important than somebody’s paycheck.”

White is attending the EPA hearings to try to bring health impacts of coal mining to the forefront by “bridging the gap” between those who fight CO2 emissions and those who fight the EPA.

“At 31, I’ve already outlived people I played with as a child,” he said. “I’ve hit middle age for a West Virginian.

“I’m proposing that the EPA do their jobs as public servants to protect health and wellbeing of communities.”

And according to a 2008 report, written by Michael Hendryx, who was then the associate director of West Virginia University’s Institute for Health Policy Research, and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University’s Department of Policy and Administration, residential proximity to heavy coal production was associated with poorer health status and with higher risk for cardiopulmonary disease, chronic lung disease, hypertension and kidney disease.

Specifically, the data shows that people living in coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, a 64 percent increase for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as emphysema, and are 30 percent more likely to report hypertension.

And with regard to what some say needs to be done to stop mountaintop removal mining, Haltom said the rule is barely scraping the surface.

“(The Clean Power Plan) is not as far-reaching and far-sweeping as some might be portraying it as,” Haltom said. “These rules would really have no impact on mountaintop removal, and would have no real impact in reducing the health crisis that is in mountaintop removal communities from the blasting dust and things like that.”

According to Raney, however, “All of these health effects from mountaintop removal and such are so suspect and … don’t have definitive findings. It’s people opposed to mining industries that publish these findings.

“They’re forcing people into unemployment.”

But Haltom said there’s no cost that could outweigh the importance of a healthier West Virginia.

“A lot of people are paying for coal-fired electricity with their lives,” Haltom said. “I have had friends and family who have died from mountaintop removal; that’s the externalized cost that the coal industry is passing on to the people in the communities with their poison.

“That’s the cost that doesn’t show up on your electric bill.”