Facing South

Labor and environment: A match made in 'almost heaven'

Facing South
Facing South
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By Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices

Something extraordinary is happening this week in southern West
Virginia. For the first time in years, the United Mineworkers of America
(UMWA), the largest union representing coal miners, has found common cause with environmental and community advocates who are seeking to end mountaintop removal coal mining.

Some UMWA miners have joined hundreds of environmental and Appalachian community advocates who are marching to Blair Mountain on the 90th anniversary of one of the greatest labor battles in American history.

Both groups want to protect this historic mountain from the efforts of coal companies to obliterate parts of the battlefield in order to conduct mountaintop removal coal mining operations.

In fact, the march to Blair Mountain is only one of several recent
examples where the interests of labor and environmental advocates are
closely aligned. For instance, last week's buyout of Massey Energy was
another recent event celebrated by environmentalists, community groups and organized labor alike. Massey was not only reckless, negligent and probably criminal
in last year's disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia,
but the company was by far the largest operator of mountaintop removal
coal mines in Appalachia and a notorious scofflaw in regard to environmental laws like the Clean Water Act. Massey had also long been known for its union-busting practices.

A third -- and by far the most important -- factor linking the
struggles of these groups is an almost existential crisis they are
facing as a result of America's recent, acute attack of what I like to
call "Deficit Attention and Hypocrisy Disorder" (hat tip).
The takeover of many state legislatures and governors' offices by
anti-government and anti-union ideologues last November has resulted in
bills to strip collective bargaining rights
of public employees in states from Ohio and Wisconsin to Florida and
Tennessee -- all of which, of course, is taking place under the false
pretense of reducing the deficit.

Environmentalists got a similar wake-up call when the new Republican majority in the House sought to eviscerate
EPA's ability to enforce the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts through
amendments to the House Budget bill last February. Again, this was all
done under the false banner of reducing the deficit.

If we are going to avoid disaster in this next election cycle, then
we need to break out of our circular firing squad and do our part to
change the narrative -- and thus the mandate of whoever controls the
reins of government after the next election -- away from "Deficit
Attention and Hypocrisy Disorder" and back toward creating jobs and
protecting the health and safety of workers and the environment in which
they live.

Why can't we all just get along?

Community organizers, environmental groups and the UMWA once worked
shoulder to shoulder to pass regulations on strip mining. Those efforts
culminated in the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation
Act (SMCRA) in 1977. Unfortunately, a lot of resentment has developed
between these groups over the past 15 years, mostly stemming from
divergent positions on the environmentally devastating and
job-destroying practice of mountaintop removal. While UMWA does not have
an official position on mountaintop removal, a number of public
statements by UMWA President Cecil Roberts have been explicitly
supportive of the practice.

Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette has written a lot about the
complex balancing act that Cecil Roberts must perform in order to
represent all UMWA members (a small proportion of which work at
mountaintop removal and other types of surface mines in Appalachia)
while not entirely alienating his union from other progressive causes
and constituencies that are natural political allies of the union (see here, here and here).
The problem is that stopping the destruction caused by mountaintop
removal is among the top priorities of many progressive groups in
Appalachia, whose feelings toward the UMWA now range from frustration to
rage.

Of course, the attitude of some union miners toward environmental
groups and community activists is equally venomous, but that does not
appear to be representative of the feelings of most UMWA members (many
of whom are retired). For instance, a 2008 poll of likely voters in the
specific region where mountaintop removal occurs showed that opposition
to mountaintop removal mining was even greater among union households
than it was among the general population of the region. In fact, it's
well worth taking a look at the key findings of that poll, which was
commissioned by my organization in advance of the 2008 elections [a
portion of the results, summarized by the polling firm Gerstein and
Agne, is available here]. According to the firm that conducted the polling, the key results included:

  • Voters in the Appalachian region oppose mountaintop removal mining
    and are more likely to support presidential candidate who similarly
    opposes the method
  • Majorities of two key audiences -- Independents and union households -- oppose mountaintop removal
  • Voters reject jobs vs. environment frame of mountaintop removal supporters
  • Renewable energy seen as long-term key to energy security, economic growth, and quality of life of local communities
  • Overwhelming support for Clean Water Protection Act -- even after
    opponents say it will mean an end to mountaintop removal mining in their
    state

It would not be fair, however, to put all of the blame for the sour
relationship onto UMWA leadership. While most local opponents of
mountaintop removal mining are not opposed to all coal mining, the
attitudes and statements of some outspoken opponents of mountaintop
removal have been distinctly anti-coal. That's not a message that
resonates well with rank-and-file members of the UMWA. Moreover, while
there are a growing number of environmental and community groups
promoting economic development around renewable energy and
weatherization in the region, creating new jobs and new industries has
never been the core strength of environmental groups.

That said, there is increasing evidence that moves by the EPA to rein
in the permitting of the most destructive new mountaintop removal mines
are creating jobs, not destroying them. It turns out that mining jobs
have been a real bright spot in the national and regional employment
picture since the start of the Great Recession. As shown in the graph
below, the number of mining jobs in Appalachia has increased by 8.5%
over the same time period that the overall US economy shed more than 5%
of its workforce. In fact, the number of mining jobs has increased
substantially since the EPA started its "enhanced review" of mine permits and since their new guidance on surface mine permitting went into effect in April of last year.

wasson_graf1.png

In short, it seems that much of the reason for the past friction
between UMWA and environmental groups stems from false perceptions and
poor communication rather than from fundamentally divergent interests.
Following are my humble suggestions for a road map to repair and expand
the natural alliance between environmental and labor organizations in
Appalachia.

1. Get the facts

The perception created by the coal industry
that the EPA is destroying mining jobs and causing an economic crisis
in Appalachia is entrenched firmly enough in the public discourse to
withstand a mountain of contrary evidence. However, the unions should
know better than to believe this kind of rhetoric from coal companies
and trade associations that have used the same "sky-is-falling" estimates of job losses
to oppose every effort by the unions to strengthen workplace safety
laws and strengthen the enforcement of those already on the books. The
UMWA knows well that this rhetoric is false and that stronger safety
laws actually create more jobs. They should also know that the same
principle applies to health and environmental laws -- and there's plenty
of evidence to show that strengthening them is already creating new
mining jobs and helping to save existing ones.

On the other hand, environmental and community advocates have also
been pretty loose with the facts at times. One particular example is a
lot of counter-productive rhetoric about coal from mountaintop removal
mines being mostly shipped overseas. This rhetoric is presumably used in
an effort to play on the populist xenophobia that has won many an
election for unscrupulous politicians, but it is simply untrue -- almost
all of the coal shipped out of eastern ports is metallurgical coal used
for steel-making, which is mined almost entirely underground. Drumming
up opposition to exports of metallurgical coal is counter-productive for
environmental advocates -- and anathema to unions and potential allies
outside the region that depend on shipping revenues -- because it
undermines the most immediate opportunity to replace jobs in mountaintop
removal mining.

While there are certainly environmental, health and safety problems
at underground mines and processing facilities that produce
metallurgical coal, the high price that met coal commands compared to
steam coal (i.e., coal used to produce electricity) can support far more
environmentally responsible mining and waste disposal practices. In
addition, the sky-rocketing price of metallurgical coal can support
bigger payrolls, safer mines, higher wages, and better benefits for
miners. Ultimately, it may very well help the effort to unionize mines,
which creates even more jobs and better safety practices.

2. Embrace the future

Shortly before he died, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia wrote a
powerful op-ed urging the coal industry in his state to "embrace the
future." As the late Senator wrote:

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become
public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment.
Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West
Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making
significant investments to prepare.
...

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 as more power plants begin shifting to
biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Whether or not one believes that stronger regulations on CO2
emissions and other coal-related pollutants are inevitable, there is one
simple reality brought up by Senator Byrd that residents of Appalachian
coal mining states cannot afford to ignore. America's demand for
Appalachian coal is going nowhere but down, not because of the EPA or
environmentalists, but because the high cost of accessing dwindling
reserves make it uncompetitive with alternative sources of energy (see
graph below for historic and projected future trends).

wasson_graf2.png

Given that declining demand is the bottleneck for Appalachian coal
production, as evidenced by the fact that existing mines are operating
at historically low capacity levels, there is really nothing that the
EPA or environmental groups are doing in regard to mining rules, or even
could do, that would actually decrease coal production in the short
term. For instance, consider the chart below, which summarizes
information from the Federal Reserve about the productive capacity of
already permitted and active coal mines and the level at which that
capacity is being utilized.

wasson_graf3.png

This highlights the absurdity of blaming the EPA policies on mine
permitting, or environmental groups working to end mountaintop removal,
for recent declines in coal production. In fact the capacity of the US
fleet of active coal mines has never been higher, while the proportion
of that capacity that is actually being utilized has never been lower. I've written elsewhere
about how this simple fact undercuts every argument made by coal
industry supporters about how the EPA is threatening jobs, electricity
supply and national security. But the point here is that the efforts of
unions to eliminate permitting bottlenecks accomplishes nothing to
increase production or mining jobs.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, also have some embracing of the
future to do. Firstly, while most acknowledge that coal use won't go
away overnight, we haven't really taken to heart the simple fact that
this means coal will have to be mined somewhere. Supporting responsible
mining practices can be as important as opposing irresponsible ones, and
it could go a long way toward building bridges with unions and other
potential allies. There has thus far been little enthusiasm among
environmental advocates to wade into those difficult and controversial
waters, and I'm as guilty as any for avoiding the issue, but perhaps the
time has come for us to take a position on what responsible mining
practices are, as well as irresponsible ones, and work together with
unions to ensure that it's the most worker-friendly and environmentally
responsible mines that get permitted to meet the declining demand for
coal.

As mentioned previously, we'd also be wise to acknowledge the fact
that production of metallurgical coal in Appalachia is likely to
increase in the next few years, even as overall production continues its
precipitous decline. Is it really impossible to embrace that as a good
thing, even as we work to improve the waste disposal practices of coal
processing plants and reduce the damage caused by underground longwall
mines?

3. Communicate regularly and collaborate when possible

I speak for many of my colleagues in saying we yearn for the day when
we're not in the midst of a pitched battle to prevent the immediate
destruction of dozens of mountains and streams and can begin working on
legislation that we half-jokingly call the "Central Appalachian Economic
Diversification and Jobs Bonanza Act." We spoke many times with Senator
Byrd's office about developing and introducing some such bill, and had
Senator Byrd lived a little longer, one may actually have been
introduced by now. But it's pointless to work on an economic development
and diversification bill that lacks the support of local workers and
elected officials. Collaborating to promote worker retraining programs
and federal and state incentives to bring new industries to Appalachia
would be an excellent way for labor unions and environmental and
community advocacy groups to work together to accomplish common goals.

But the most important thing, especially as we get into the next
election cycle, is to ensure that the UMWA and environmental groups
don't unnecessarily work at cross-purposes and thus inadvertently play
into the hands of the anti-government and anti-union radicals that are
working to deepen our nation's "Deficit Attention and Hypocrisy
Disorder."

This week's march on Blair Mountain is a timely reminder of just how
much organized labor, community advocates and environmental
organizations have in common. And the stark post-November realities that
we are facing should provide a lot of incentive to not forget it again.

Photo of March on Blair Mountain from Appalachian Voices. To take action to help protect Blair Mountain and other mountains and
communities threatened by mountaintop removal coal mining, visit iLoveMountains.org.

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