Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 


People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”

Blaming coal’s problems on regulators is a strategy for losers

August 12, 2012

We curse the cop when we see lights flashing in our rear-view mirror.

Kentuckians are an independent people. We have good reasons to speed! Besides, speed limits restrict our “freedom” and take away our “liberty.” They are downright un-American, forced upon us by politicians and government bureaucrats.

Of course, we know in our heart that the cop is just doing his duty for our own good. Without speed limits, crashes would claim a greater toll than the already obscene 32,000 deaths nationally each year, one-third of which are caused by speeding.

It is harder to visualize the tens of thousands of people who die prematurely or are sickened by air and water pollution caused by irresponsible coal mining and burning. This is a largely hidden toll, with no graphic video for television newscasts. But health researchers can prove and document it.

The National Resources Defense Council reported last week that Kentucky is the worst state in the nation for toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. It blamed that fact on state officials doing too little to force utilities to clean up.

The coal industry acts as if it is above the law. Kentucky government too often behaves as if it is owned and operated by coal interests.

Politicians love to rant about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

What they mean is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining and other federal agencies are, for the first time in years, being better cops. They are enforcing environmental-protection laws, and they are trying to make state regulators enforce them, too.

Consider this recent example, at a joint meeting of the General Assembly’s Natural Resources and the Environment committee on Aug. 2.

The issue at hand was OSM’s demand that Kentucky follow the 1977 federal surface-mining law and require mining companies to post adequate reclamation bonds. If a company cleans up mined land as required by law, its bond is refunded. If it goes broke before the work is done, the bond is supposed to pay for cleanup.

The federal government has for years urged Kentucky to require higher bonds because in many of the 15 to 25 bond forfeiture cases each year there is too little money to do the work.

The Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported that in an average year, the state Division of Abandoned Mine Lands faces more than $4 million in unfunded reclamation costs because bonds are too small. Land is left scarred, and neighbors’ property values are diminished.

The Beshear administration says that requiring adequate bonds would be “impractical and unaffordable” for many coal companies. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has proposed raising bond requirements and creating a pool financed by fees on coal operations to help pay costs when an individual company’s reclamation bond falls short.

That seems like a reasonable solution, but you can bet it won’t happen unless federal regulators keep up the pressure. Most of us would find it reasonable to require an industry to clean up after itself. But to coal-industry apologists, it’s war.

“There is an assault on Kentucky, and really our way of life,” Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, complained at the Aug. 2 meeting.

“I don’t want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either,” said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, “because I believe in states’ rights.”

Despite earning their livings from coal-related businesses, Gooch and Hall are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Natural Resources and the Environment committee. No conflicts of interest there.

Federal regulators are not waging a “war” on coal. They are enforcing laws designed to limit pollution, sickness and premature death, which study after study have attributed to irresponsible coal mining and burning.

In the short term, the coal industry will find plenty of allies in this phony “war on coal.” Kentucky miners are desperate for jobs, and other businesses like having electricity that has always been artificially cheap because the full cost of producing it hasn’t been taken into account.

Western coal, cheap natural gas, renewable energy technology and the reality of climate change cannot be ignored. If Kentucky’s coal industry wants a future, it must clean up its act and find ways to reduce the health and environmental damage of its product.

The coal industry faces inevitable change, the kind of seismic economic shift that Kentucky slaveholders and tobacco growers once faced. Continuing to blame the environmental cops whose lights are now in the rear-view mirror is a strategy for losers.


A coal supporter talks straight with the industry

June 28, 2012

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press.


Americans heard something on the U.S. Senate floor last Wednesday that they haven’t heard for nearly three years: a coal-state senator and longtime supporter of the coal industry speak eloquent truth to power.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s 16-minute speech was remarkable for its wisdom and candor. It echoed a similar address in 2009 by another West Virginia Democrat and longtime coal-industry champion, the late Sen. Robert Byrd.

They both sounded like old friends trying to warn an alcoholic that his behavior had become unacceptably destructive, both to himself and to others.

The occasion for Rockefeller’s speech was a resolution before the Senate to disapprove of new Environmental Protection Agency rules reducing coal-fired power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic pollution.

The resolution was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and climate-change denier, and endorsed by coal industry lapdogs including Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.

“Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality,” Rockefeller began. (To watch the video, go to Youtu.be/ErN9v3e7zro)

“The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” he said. “Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes.”

Rockefeller then outlined some inconvenient truths that coal industry leaders gloss over when they attack environmental-protection laws and government regulation.

“First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging,” he said. “The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling — especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower-cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins.

“Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies,” he said.

“Third, the shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is,” Rockefeller said. “Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.”

Rockefeller, who was West Virginia’s governor from 1977 to 1985 and has been a senator ever since, said that in 2010, he proposed a two-year suspension of EPA carbon rules to try to help the coal industry adapt. Instead, the industry has fought all attempts at compromise. “This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal,” he said.

Rockefeller said the EPA’s actions are in the best interest of his state’s citizens.

“The annual health benefits of the rule are enormous,” he said. “EPA has relied on thousands of studies that established the serious and long-term impact of these pollutants on premature deaths, heart attacks, hospitalizations, pregnant women, babies and children.”

If coal is to have a future, it must solve its environmental challenges rather than keep trying to avoid them, Rockefeller said.

“It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future,” he said. “Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns, to what West Virginians are saying about their water and air, their health, and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.

“And unless this industry aggressively leans into the future, coal miners will lose the most,” he said. “We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future, but to boldly embrace it.”

I’m sure Rockefeller’s speech angered the coal barons, just as Byrd’s speech did in December 2009. Coal industry leaders don’t seem interested in listening to reason, even from politicians who have supported them for decades. They’re probably already raising money to try to defeat Rockefeller in his next election. After all, there’s no shortage of politicians willing to take the coal industry’s money and do its bidding, in Kentucky and in West Virginia.

If Rockefeller’s words have any impact, it is likely to be with the coal industry’s declining work force, and with coal-state citizens who are getting fed up with poisonous air, polluted water and higher incidences of sickness and disease. Coal will never have a bright future as long as its leaders cling to a dirty past.

Watch Rockefeller’s speech here:

Commerce Lexington should promote the future, not coal’s past

December 5, 2009

As world leaders gather Monday in Copenhagen to rewrite energy policies to reduce future carbon emissions, Lexington business leaders have rewritten their energy policy to try to help the coal industry cling to the past.

Commerce Lexington announced a policy revision last week. that dropped a reference to “encourage the production and use of reliable and less carbon-intensive energy fuels, like natural gas” and replaced it with “maintain the production of affordable, reliable energy.” Several direct coal industry endorsements were added, including:

” … the most immediate threat to Kentucky’s business climate is the pending energy legislation and regulatory obstacles that place an undue burden on states like Kentucky that rely heavily on coal-fired generation plants for electricity. … Commerce Lexington opposes any legislation and regulations that would have a significant negative impact” on coal-industry jobs.

Robert Quick, Commerce Lexington’s president, said the business advocacy group has always supported coal and wanted to make that support more explicit. “It’s hypocritical if we advocate for low-cost energy without supporting coal,” he said.

Quick said the rewrite was prompted by a two-day bus tour of Eastern Kentucky by nearly 70 Commerce Lexington members that “opened our eyes.” The trip included tours of showcase coal projects and presentations by industry representatives and coal-friendly public officials, but nothing from coal’s critics in the region.

Quick said the bus tour on Oct. 12-13 wasn’t a coal-industry junket. He emphasized that Commerce Lexington doesn’t deny climate change or the need to transition away from coal as Kentucky’s reserves are depleted.

“We know that there’s climate change,” Quick said. “We have to be looking for alternative fuels. It’s going to be a transition. Change is coming.”

Quick said the policy rewrite was simply intended to acknowledge coal’s role in Kentucky’s economy and to “make a connection” with mountain leaders.

“Nobody from the coal industry or our membership got to us,” he said. “Nobody got us in a head lock.”

Some people may see it that way.

Others will see it this way: The rewrite echoes a publicity campaign being waged for the coal industry by Phil Osborne, a public relations executive who serves on Commerce Lexington’s Executive Committee and played a big role in the bus tour.

Others also will see the policy rewrite as an attempt to pacify powerful pro-coal people in Eastern Kentucky, some of whom have been calling for a boycott of Lexington businesses because all of our public officials and media don’t toe the coal industry line the way theirs do.

Yes, the coal industry produces some good-paying jobs in Eastern Kentucky, although many fewer than in the past. That’s because of controversial, mechanized surface-mining methods that are radically altering the mountain landscape.

While it’s good that Commerce Lexington members spent time in Eastern Kentucky, they could have gotten a more well-rounded education on coal by traveling to the University of Kentucky campus Nov. 5 for the College of Engineering’s excellent coal conference.

In addition to hearing the coal industry’s perspectives, Commerce Lexington members would have heard from Eastern Kentuckians who have had their property, communities, water supplies and health damaged by coal mining. And they would have gotten a more complete — and less rosy — picture of coal’s impact on Kentucky’s economy.

King Coal’s campaign against change reminds me of Big Tobacco’s lobbying efforts three decades ago. Long after others were acknowledging the inevitable, Kentucky leaders kept trying to deny tobacco’s harm.

Coal will be much harder to quit than tobacco. Coal produces half the nation’s electricity and 92 percent of Kentucky’s. Nobody denies the valuable contributions that hard-working coal miners have made. Without coal we wouldn’t have our modern lifestyle.

Coal will continue to be essential to our nation for many years. But the longer we keep mining and burning coal the way we do now, the more dangerous it will be for our economy and our planet.

Coal companies have a long history of fighting change, from mine safety reforms to surface owners’ rights to surface-mine reclamation. They always claim that any new regulation will kill the coal industry. Regulation has never killed the coal industry; but the industry has never changed without regulation.

One startling indicator of change came last week in a commentary written by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has been one of coal’s strongest allies in Congress for more than five decades.

Byrd wrote bluntly that if the coal industry wants to be a player in helping set future energy policy it must stop scapegoating, stoking fear among its workers, resisting environmental regulation and denying climate change.

Commerce Lexington’s rewritten energy policy may appease some powerful people in Eastern Kentucky, but Lexington business leaders should think about what kind of message it sends to the rest of the nation and world.

Is it smart to go down tobacco road again, to help the coal industry wage a losing battle to cling to the past?

Or would it be smarter to position Lexington as the place where researchers and entrepreneurs should come to solve coal’s problems?

The future will belong to those cities, states and nations that figure out how to mine and use coal in more environmentally responsible ways and develop the energy technologies that must someday replace coal.

To paraphrase the old Harlan County coal camp song, Commerce Lexington should think about which side of inevitable change it wants to be on.

UK coal conference showed the challenge ahead

November 11, 2009

There was a remarkable public forum at the University of Kentucky on Thursday. The moderator began by saying it reminded him of the old song Which Side Are You On?

Florence Reece, a miner’s wife, wrote that song about the economic controversies surrounding coal in Harlan County in the 1930s. Thursday’s forum, sponsored by UK’s College of Engineering, focused on the global controversies surrounding coal today.

What made the forum remarkable was that it might have been the first time that so many coal executives, environmentalists and community activists sat together in the same room and discussed those controversies openly and, for the most part, honestly.

Some speakers on both sides fell into the old traps — misrepresentations, oversimplifications and emotional appeals. But most stuck to facts. Things are different when you’re addressing your biggest critics, rather than preaching to your choir.

Historian Ron Bryant noted that coal’s effects on human health and the environment have been controversial since mining began in Kentucky in the 1820s. “But the need for coal stopped all arguments,” he said.

Coal powered the industrial revolution, and it fuels our modern lifestyle. But the global debate over climate change is making people realize that the future will be much different than the past.

Most of the world’s scientists and policy makers agree that climate change is real and that burning coal poses a threat to civilization. Meanwhile, there’s increased public opposition to surface and mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia and the environmental damage it causes.

“We can no longer in this state maintain the status quo,” said Joe Blackburn, a regulator for more than three decades who heads the Lexington field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

“Dealing with change is never easy,” he said. “But change is a normal part of life.”

Some coal executives seemed surprised when economists outlined their industry’s declining influence in Kentucky.

Coal employment has fallen sharply since its peak in 1980 as mining has become more mechanized. Coal accounts for only 1 percent of statewide employment — and only 3.5 percent when spin-off jobs are included.

Mining creates some good-paying jobs, but it also crowds out other economic opportunities in coal-producing counties, some of which are among the nation’s poorest.

Coal production accounts for only 1.45 percent of gross state product — and it’s falling. Kentucky coal production peaked in 1988, and the market has shifted to cheaper coal from Western states.

Coal has kept Kentucky’s electricity rates among the cheapest in the nation. But those rates are rising and will continue to rise in a carbon-conscious world that will require coal to bear more of its true cost.

And here’s the rub: Coal now provides about half the nation’s electricity — and 92 percent in Kentucky. Renewable energy sources aren’t commercially advanced enough to replace coal, and they won’t be for years, if not decades.

Renewable energy and perhaps nuclear power must be developed soon, because we’re running out of coal. Kentucky might have only 20 years of coal left — or maybe 100 years, with improved mining technology and the right market conditions. But everyone agrees that coal is a finite resource whose end is in sight.

The forum wasn’t all doom and gloom; there was encouraging news. UK researchers talked about what they’re doing to develop renewable energy and lessen the environmental damage of mining and burning coal, and to reforest and reclaim mined land.

The unmistakable takeaway from this daylong “fair and balanced” discussion of coal’s future was that the solutions aren’t simple and the trade-offs won’t be painless, either for the coal industry or for the energy-consuming public.

But Kentucky is at a crossroads.

The coal industry can continue to deny climate change, fight regulation and use scare tactics to delay the inevitable. Or it can work with scientists and its critics to find more responsible ways to mine and use the coal we have left.

Kentucky’s political and business leaders can try to preserve the status quo, as they did for years with tobacco. Or they can focus on energy conservation. They can support research. And they can develop the energy technologies and industries that must eventually replace coal.

If last week’s public forum showed one thing, it’s that there’s only one logical path, no matter which side you’re on.

Ashley Judd speaks out on mountaintop mining

February 17, 2009

As I drove to Frankfort early Tuesday, punching the buttons on my car radio, I came across one of those feel-good spots from the Kentucky coal industry. It ended with this line: “Never underestimate the power of coal.”

That’s been good advice in this state for more than a century. And never more true than inside the marble walls of the building where I was headed.

I came to the state Capitol on this sunny day to witness a different kind of power — the growing public sentiment against coal-mining methods that blast away mountains and fill headwater streams with the debris.

More than 500 Kentuckians — from toddlers on their parents’ shoulders to seniors in their 80s — marched up Capitol Avenue and gathered on the Capitol steps for the annual I Love Mountains Rally. The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organized the rally to push for legislation that would ban the burying of headwater streams with mining waste.

The marchers carried signs proclaiming “topless mountains are obscene” and urging “not one more mile” of streams be destroyed. They lacked the coal industry’s economic or political power. Instead, they sought to harness moral power.

Ashley Judd added glamour to the event. The Kentucky actress, famous for reciting other people’s words in movies, gave a 20-minute speech of her own that was passionate and eloquent. It was no celebrity puff piece, but a sharp critique of mountaintop-removal mining, the coal industry and the endless cycle of poverty she said coal has brought to Appalachia.

“There is no doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky,” Judd said. “The crises are systemic, and the system at the root of our 100-year-long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies.

“They assured us that each reform … would be the end, the death of the coal industry,” Judd said. “Well, by golly, what do you know. Here the coal companies still are — bigger, and badder and richer than ever. … Make no mistake about it: The coal companies are thriving. Even in this bleak economy, they are thriving. What is dying is our mountains. And they are dying so fast, my friends, so shockingly fast.”

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville pledged to fight mountaintop-removal mining through federal clean-water legislation. That may be necessary. The state “stream saver” bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington and Rep. Don Pasley of Winchester, is getting the usual cold shoulder from legislative leaders with close ties to the coal industry.

Silas House, a best-selling author from Eastern Kentucky, said he was disappointed Gov. Steve Beshear declined to attend the rally, even though it was just a few steps from his office.

“I think Gov. Beshear is a good man and I don’t understand why he won’t come out and listen to us,” House said, noting that many of his neighbors also are afraid to cross King Coal. “We’ve had a hundred years of being told not to speak out against the coal industry. It’s hard to break out of that culture. We’ve been taught to feel powerless.”

Mickey McCoy, a high school teacher from Inez in coal-rich Martin County, agreed: “It’s a terrible thing when you can’t get a single senator or representative from the coalfield counties to represent anything but the coal industry.”

Beshear’s spokesman, Jay Blanton, said the governor was in an important economic development meeting that had been scheduled weeks earlier, but left it to meet with Judd and a small group of KFTC members after the rally. Blanton said Judd spent Monday night at the governor’s mansion where she and Beshear “talked at some length about these issues.”

KFTC said nearly 500 Kentucky mountains have been destroyed by mountaintop-removal mining. It cited figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that more than 1,400 miles of headwater streams in the state have been buried or damaged by mining since 1981.

The coal industry, which says it provides 17,000 jobs in Kentucky, argues that the “stream saver” legislation would virtually halt surface mining in Eastern Kentucky. And it notes that coal provides more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity at some of the nation’s cheapest prices.

There’s no doubt Kentucky needs coal — at least until we can develop alternative energy sources, hopefully before all of the coal runs out. But that doesn’t mean coal must be mined by the most environmentally destructive methods. Electricity is cheap only if you don’t include all of the hidden costs to Kentucky’s land, water and people.

In the short run, economic arguments always seem to trump moral arguments, even when people know in their hearts what is right. In the long run, though, moral arguments usually prevail.

A few decades ago, it was blasphemy to speak out against the health dangers of smoking, because tobacco was so important to Kentucky’s economy. A century and a half ago, many people argued that the economy couldn’t survive without slavery.

“The environment is not a place where we go hiking; it’s a place where we live,” said Sam Avery, who came to the rally from Hart County, where he lives in a solar-powered home.

“When you grind up a mountain just for the coal, you destroy the trees, the animals, the insects, the water supply. The living world is that much smaller,” Avery said. “From a Biblical perspective, it’s an abomination to the creator.”

Click on photos below to enlarge