In the early 1920s, my grandfather worked as a coal miner in Pittsburg, Kansas. But not for long.
His job was to work "ahead of the air," as he described it in a journal written some 30 years later. Grandpa would grab a lungful of good air, dig at the coal face as long as he could hold his breath, run back to the good air, exhale, grab another lungful, and return to the coal face. Over and over and over. After a short time, Grandpa said to hell with this, in his Piedmontese Italian dialect. He left the coal mine, made his way to Los Angeles, took a job as a meat cutter, and later opened a grocery store.
Of all the energy sources used in this country, coal is the hardest to like. Coal has a long, ugly history: Company towns, black lung, explosions, cave-ins, ozone, particulates, mercury, slurry spills, mountaintop removal, and global warming. And of all the energy industries, coal seems to have the biggest chip on its shoulder about safety and environmental issues.
Safety ... First?
Take Robert Murray, the owner of a mountain mine in Utah where six workers were trapped in an accident that occurred during a risky procedure called retreat mining, which is essentially a controlled cave-in. Murray, a loud critic of tougher safety rules, at first blamed the accident on an earthquake. When geologists put that fanciful tale to rest, Murray blazed a new trail in absurd blame shifting by denouncing the mountain as "evil."
If Murray's attitude was atypical in the industry, he could be dismissed as an abrasive eccentric. It's not. Two thousand miles east of Utah, coal interests hurl incendiary rhetoric at anyone who dares to question the horrific practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, which has wiped out forests, buried streams, and wrecked communities in the central Appalachians. Coal companies routinely predict darkly that curbing or ending mountaintop removal mining would kill jobs. What they don't say is that coal jobs have declined significantly anyway, partly as a result of the mechanization that made mountaintop removal mining possible.
Coal company advertisements go so far as to say that mountaintop removal is a "win-win" that improves the environment and opens land to development. The evidence on the ground shouts otherwise.
Undermining The Clean Water Act
Now, the Interior Department has proposed a rule that would perpetuate and expand mountaintop removal, by legalizing "valley fills," a polite term for dumping thousands of tons of mine spoils into watersheds and obliterating streams. The rule, if finalized, would amount to repealing the Clean Water Act by decree. The law is clear on its goal: to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Destroying streams does not restore or maintain them.
There is nothing conservative about torturing the meaning of the Clean Water Act to enable coal interests to use watersheds as free garbage cans. As the conservative author Russell Kirk once wrote: "...Only the unscrupulous or shortsighted can defend pollution and degradation of the countryside." Bipartisan legislation, the Clean Water Protection Act, has been introduced to end valley filling, but its prospects are uncertain. King Coal has a lot of pull in Congress, with Democrats and Republicans.
Coal will be with us for a while. Half the nation's electricity is generated by the black diamond. The responsible thing to do is to clean up coal, from the mine face to the power plant. If King Coal wants a future in a carbon-constrained world, the king better lose his old habits and become a better neighbor to communities, nation, and world.
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