Sunday, October 14, 2012

Who Will Help the Miner?

Who Will Help The Miner?

Coal miners listened to Republican Mitt Romney speak at a mine in Beallsville, Ohio, in August.  The Good Ol' Days of winning elections in the coalfields with a bull horn mounted on top of a winged-back car, pints of moonshine, a fistful of $20 bills and a fat cemetery register apparently have lost their appeal in the 2012 Presidential election.

Coal miners are facing dark days ahead and politicians seeking an endorsement from a coalminer may have to put up a job to get his vote.
Pink slips are being handed out by the hundreds as shifts come and go. Miners and their families are scared of what the future holds for coal country. Will they be able to stay in their homes and communities if there is no future for coal?

Smitty Smith of southwest Virginia got his pink slip today after 23 years with Alpha Coal working on a strip job. He has high school and college age children. His family is asking for prayers for another job — not a handout, or a speech from a politician filled with empty promises.
Miners have a history of banding together in tough times so their voices may be heard. And with fewer than 50 days until the Presidential election, there is no louder voice than the vote. However, many miners, including the 100,000 strong United Mine Workers of America are sitting out this election without endorsing a presidential candidate, according to UMW President, Cecil Roberts.

The UMWA historically has supported the Democratic candidate, but Roberts contends Obama’s strict and immediate enforcement of Environmental Protection Agency regulations will leave miners in the dark.
Problems in the coalfields are multiple and come from many directions, but politicians who understand the coal culture and genuinely care about the future of those living and working in Appalachia have the resources needed to resolve many of these threatening issues.  The most powerful resource the miner has is his vote.

Clean Air
One major problem is blamed on President Obama’s EPA. According to UMWA President Roberts, if and when fully implemented, these new regulations (Cross State Air Pollution rule in July 2011 and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule in December 2011) will severely cut back long-term use of coal as fuel for generating electricity.

An adjustment period has been requested to transition existing coal-fired plants into compliance over a period of time, but no additional time has been allowed so far. Also these government regulations mean it is not going to be economically feasible to build new coal-fired plants for many years, if ever, and as the current ones age the market for thermal coal will diminish.
There are nearly 600 coal generating facilities and 1,100 manufacturing facilities using coal in America. Job wise, you do the math.
Romney is faring no better with the airing of the 2003 ad where as Governor of Massachusetts, at a press conference in front of a coal plant, he vowed, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people.”

Black Lung
Republican leaders on the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee inserted language into the 2013 budget bill for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that would prevent the agency from spending any money to implement new proposed regulations that would reduce miners’ exposure to coal dust.

In West Virginia alone, over 2,000 miners have died of black lung over the last decade.  More than 70,000 have died since federal regulations were put in place in 1969.  This action from uncaring politicians is nothing less than a potential death sentence for miners.

Natural Gas, a Coal Competitor
Just when coal was most vulnerable, another blow struck the coalfields — the tapping of the Marcellus shale gas fields in West Virginia and surrounding states. The price of natural gas dropped below that of coal, and some utilities have taken this opportunity to make the investment, switching from coal to gas.
Coal production is already expected to fall by more than 103.3 million tons from 2011 to 2012. Coal’s usage in the electricity generation field fell below 40 percent in the last two months of last year. That had not happened since 1978.

Mother Nature 
Even Ol' Mother Nature seems to have a grudge against coal miners, giving the entire United States the winter of 2011–12, the fourth warmest on record, and reducing the need for power produced by coal. The eastern part of the country experienced uncommon warmth, exactly the part of the country where the nation’s coal production is used to generate power.

Who Will Help the Miner?
Three major events in less than one year have sent shock waves throughout the hollers and hills of the Appalachian coalfields:

1. An extremely mild winter

2. The price of natural gas dropping below that of coal

3. EPA’s regulations putting coal’s future as a fuel for electricity generation in question.
With the bleak outlook on mining as a job in Appalachia, what should miners’ demand from their political leaders?

At minimum, there should be a plan that would give coal companies and miners time to move out of a coal economy. Miners need to be retrained in jobs besides coal. And there needs to be a plan for building a new economy in the Appalachian coalfields.

Will either one of the Presidential candidates earn the miner's vote by helping him and his family find a way, a life, a future in the coalfields?

Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer.

Monday, October 8, 2012

John, Cecil and Black Lung

John and Grace Adkins, when John was a young miner. Before he got black lung.
Editor's Note: Late last week federal prosecutors said they were considering criminal charges against coal mining companies that have deliberately violated coal dust rules.  This comes after a series of storiesshowing a rise in black lung disease in the eastern coalfields appeared in the Charleston Gazette and on National Public Radio. 
We asked West Virginia writer Berry Dotson-Lewis to tell us what black lung meant in the lives of people who live in the Appalachian coalfields. She sent us this story of two of her friends, John Adkins and Cecil Butcher.
Grace Adkins is one of my best friends. When I visit her, she tells me she feels like half a person now since she lost her husband, John. 
The brown recliner chair sits empty in the corner of the living room and a pair of hard-toe work boots are behind the front door, as if John would be coming out of the bedroom any moment to pick up his lunch pail and head off to the mines.
I wish you could have met John Adkins. He made you laugh. He told little stories about hunting, fishing and mining. The way he told them, he usually outwitted all of his buddies. 
He was small-built but strong and tough as nails when I first met him. That strength came from his 30 years of hard labor as a coal miner. He started shoveling coal full-time by the age of 15. 
Grace said that black lung came like a ghost in the middle of the night. There were  little warning signs,  a cough that would not go away and spitting up black phlegm.  As the symptoms worsened, John went to doctors. But there’s no cure for black lung. 
The little coal mining community of Enon, four miles out of Summersville, West Virginia on Rt. 39, watched helplessly as “Big” John’s health spiraled downward.  His strong, wiry body became hollow, a bony frame. He coughed until he bent over double. His appetite was gone and his breathing was labored. 
Grace didn’t feel much like talking. The house felt empty except for the hacking cough.  John still put on a good front when visitors came but he couldn’t hide the pain.  He took breathing pills, he wore an oxygen mask and made sure he had extra tanks on hand. He used a walker to slowly glide the short distance from his recliner to the TV. 
His best friend, Bill McCutcheon, who lived on the hill beside him, also a life-long coalminer, was consumed with worry over John. John and Grace no longer walked the few hundred feet up the steep hill to exchange Christmas gifts or eat supper with Bill and Elsie.
Big John (driving the tractor) and his best friend Bill McCutcheon.
When John was in the hospital in Charleston, WV, near his final days, I offered to drive Bill down to visit but Bill told me he couldn’t take it. He said, “John is like a brother to me. He’s the best friend I ever had.” 
John Adkins died from black lung.
The most valuable piece of equipment in a coalminer’s house is the portable oxygen tank.
Cecil Butcher and I got acquainted at our church. He and his wife sat in the pew behind me. He was a preacher and a coalminer. They were new members. 
When our Baptist preacher instructed us to turn and greet our neighbor, I always turned to Cecil and his wife. He wore a portable oxygen tank strapped on his back. He had black lung.
After a few Sundays, we discovered we both were interested in history, especially coalmining history and he was a walking history book. They invited me to their new house a couple of miles down the road  to see his coalmining photo collection — and, I think, show off their place.  There was plush off-white carpet, a sunken living room and a fireplace in both the living room and dining room. It was a long way from a coal camp house in Widen, WV.
Cecil survived one of the most violent coal strikes in the U.S., which took place at Widen, where John L. Lewis was trying to unionize. High-powered rifles were attached to tree branches and miners were shot at from that vantage point.  Cecil was nearly beaten to death on a coal train, hit in the head and shoulders with the butt of coal picks. 
He survived those attacks, but now he had developed the most severe form of black lung. There was no cure.
I often ran into Cecil at the post office. He would wave and motion for me to wait, he had news for me. 
Getting out of his car he would carefully remove the oxygen tank from the passenger’s side to his back making sure no hoses disconnected. Tank strapped in place and mask over his mouth and nose, he slowly walked the short distance from the handicapped parking spot to the front door of the post office. He could only utter a few words or a short phrase before sucking in more oxygen. 
The sign for the local black lung clinic is a common sight in the coalfields.
Soon his pew was empty and reports were that Cecil’s health was failing fast. Cecil, preacher and coalminer, was soon gone. Black Lung put an end to his life after only a year or so in his new home with the off-white plush carpet and two fireplaces.
A few month’s after the funeral I noticed a “For Sale” sign in the front lawn. When I asked at church what was going on, they told me that Preacher Cecil’s widow was selling the house to move the 12 miles back over the mountain to the coal camp they had come from to be close to her children.
Black Lung 
Every coalminer, his wife, children, friend and neighbor are affected by black lung. There is an alarming increase in the number of new black lung cases in the Appalachian coalfields, more than 10,000 in the last 10 years.
Black lung is an incurable disease.
It is also preventable.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer and co-author of The Girl From Stretchneck Holler