As the presidential election draws ever nearer, the campaign in our nation’s coalfields has devolved into an argument over which candidate can more quickly run away from his previous—and accurate—statements that burning coal to produce electricity kills people.
In coal-producing regions, including the swing state of Ohio, Republican Mitt Romney echoes a ferocious public relations campaign by the coal industry attacking what it calls the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” which supposedly threatens jobs and an entire “way of life.” In West Virginia, President Obama is seen as so toxic that Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin skipped their own party’s national convention. Both have made opposition to Environmental Protection Agency initiatives a central plank in their campaigns.
Romney’s embrace of coal was on full display during the first presidential debate, when he went on a riff about energy policy and threw in at the end: “And by the way, I like coal. I’m going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies.” The comment drew no response from Obama. But the president’s failure to push back wasn’t just another mistake in what was generally a poor debate performance. Throughout the campaign, Obama has scurried away from any discussion of what’s wrong with coal and why tougher regulations are needed at every stage of its life cycle, from mine to power plant to waste dump.
If the president needs a reminder, residents of the Appalachian coalfields could give him a long list of talking points about the downside of coal. Some are well-known: burning coal to generate electricity, for example, is a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention other pollutants clearly linked to illness and premature death.
Or take mountaintop removal, a kind of strip-mining on steroids in which explosives blast apart mountain peaks to uncover multiple seams of coal. Giant shovels and trucks dig and haul away the coal. Leftover rock and earth—the stuff that used to be the mountain—is shoved into nearby valleys, burying streams. Since 1992, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled by mining waste at the rate of 120 miles per year, according to the EPA. “Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses,” top University of Maryland biologist Margaret Palmer and a team of researchers concluded in a paper published in January 2010 by the respected journal Science.
Less well-known is the emerging evidence that residents living near these operations are at greater risk of serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects. “A growing body of studies have found significant associations between coal-mining areas and a variety of chronic disease problems for adults, after controlling for other disease risk factors,” said Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University professor who has co-written more than twenty such studies. And coal remains a dangerous business for the workers who do the mining. Not only do they face the daily risk of explosions and roof falls, but the deadly black lung disease—meant to be eradicated by a 1969 federal law—is on the rise again, as miners work longer hours in conditions made dustier by more aggressive coal-cutting machines.