Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Responding to “Appalachia’s Distress”

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 - posted by brian

We have to address the economic and environmental burdens created by a dependence on coal

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal moves closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

Earlier this month, a letter to the editors of The New York Times by Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons appeared on the newspaper’s website.

Tom penned the letter following a piece by the Times editorial board that described a “grossly disfigured landscape” where steep mountain ridgelines that formed over millions of years old stand “flat as mesas … inhospitable to forest restoration.”

After decades of mountaintop removal and large-scale surface mining, these grim descriptions of Central Appalachia are familiar in the media, literature and the daily experience of those that live near mines.

Not only does this devastating practice continue to reduce mountains to rubble, poisoning the air and water, Tom points out:

… mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities as the industry searches out ever-dwindling coal seams, and residents continue to suffer from a multitude of health effects related to mining pollution, not to mention dire economic conditions.

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant. Backers of mountaintop removal believe the debate ends with the reclamation of mines — a superficial “fix” that Ken Hechler, a former congressman and long-time opponent of mountaintop removal, has unsettlingly compared to putting “lipstick on a corpse.” But new research challenges the myth that reclamation can restore mountains, much less ecological health.

Donate now to help us continue to protect Appalachian streams

The Times’ welcome editorial drew attention to this study, by researchers at Duke University, that found mountaintop removal has left large swaths of Central Appalachia 40 percent flatter than they were before mining, leading to staggering changes in erosion patterns and water quality that are, essentially, permanent.

“We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years,” according to the study’s lead author, Matthew Ross.

The editorial also makes a brief mention of the Stream Protection Rule, which would go far to reducing the worst impacts of mountaintop removal. Tom wrote his letter in part to stress the importance of this science-based rule and to urge federal regulators to stand firm in the face of industry opposition, and finalize it before President Obama leaves office.

Not doing so could come at a high cost to Appalachia’s environmental and economic future. As Tom’s letter concludes:

… unless the [U.S. Department of the Interior] has the courage to issue a strong rule later this year that reflects the most current science, achieving a prosperous future here will be all but impossible.

Read the Times’ editorial here. Click here for Tom’s letter.

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Owning the Mountains: Appalachia’s history of corporate control

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

The U.S. Forest Service owns 1.6 million acres in Virginia. Overlooking Jefferson National Forest, Dickenson County. Photo by Bill Harris,

The U.S. Forest Service owns 1.6 million acres in Virginia. Overlooking Jefferson National Forest, Dickenson County. Photo by Bill Harris,

Throughout the history of the United States, Appalachia has attracted the attention of outside investors hoping to profit from the region’s valuable commodities. First timber, then coal and now natural gas are all highly valued.

To ensure access to these resources, early investors bought large parcels of land in Appalachia. “By 1810, as much as 93 percent of [the] land in present day West Virginia was held by absentee owners,” according to a 2013 report issued by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and by the 1880s, outside interests began purchasing extensive timber and underground mineral rights on land whose residents retained only the surface rights.

Outside ownership of large tracts of land for the purpose of resource extraction has created a conduit through which significant wealth has been drained from the region in the form of corporate profits. And that drain has been flowing for more than a century.

An Early Study of the Problem

In 1974, Tom D. Miller, a reporter for the The Huntington Herald-Dispatch, conducted a study of landownership patterns in West Virginia. Miller found that two-thirds of the private land in the state was owned or controlled by “absentee landlords,” and that “in almost 50 per cent of West Virginia counties, at least half the land is owned by the out-of-state corporate interests.”

Comparing the wealth of corporations to that of many West Virginians, Miller wrote, “Often paying tiny property taxes, [corporations] extract the state’s rich deposits of coal, timber, oil and gas. And their activities inevitably help sustain the striking paradox of a state with abundant mineral wealth and much abject poverty.”

The Appalachian Land Ownership Survey

In 1978, the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force undertook a thorough investigation of land ownership patterns in the region. Funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission, this group of paid researchers and volunteers collected and reviewed land deeds from 80 counties in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

In 1981, the group released its findings in a multi-volume 1,800-page report. They found that 40 percent of the property and 70 percent of the mineral rights in Appalachian counties sampled were owned by corporations, and of the land owned by individuals, less than half was owned by “local individuals.”

The task force concluded that “these ownership patterns are a crucial underlying element in explaining patterns of inadequate local tax revenues and services, lack of economic development, loss of agricultural lands, lack of sufficient housing, the development of energy, and land use.”

Despite its significant findings, the report lead to no significant changes, in part because even the Appalachian Regional Commission distanced itself from it. Reporting in April 1981 after the report’s release, the New York Times wrote, “A spokesman at the commission’s headquarters in Washington, [when] asked why the commission had done little to draw attention to it, called the survey ‘controversial’ because portions of it contain ‘subjective judgments’ and ‘some rhetoric.’”

In his book “Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945,” Ronald D. Eller notes that the commission’s continued existence was under threat from the Reagan administration’s federal budgets cuts, writing that “agency leaders abandoned the politically sensitive study to rally support for their own organization’s survival.”

The Heartwood Forestland Fund is the largest landowner in West Virginia and a significant landowner in Virginia. Photo of Highlands Property in Va. by Craig Kaderavek

The Heartwood Forestland Fund is the largest landowner in West Virginia and a significant landowner in Virginia. Photo of Highlands Property in Va. by Craig Kaderavek

Ethical Concerns

In 1995, Dr. David Rouse, a philosophy professor now retired from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, explored the ethical implications of outside land ownership in Appalachia. He concluded that these large corporate landholdings restricted access to land by individuals, increased the political influence of corporate landowners, and decreased civic engagement in those communities. According to him, the “correlation between landownership and political participation” is still relevant.

With many of the land-owning coal companies now declaring bankruptcy, Rouse is hopeful that some of this land might finally be available to benefit the community. He is now chairing a committee for the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a coalfield community organization, that will re-examine the findings of his and other earlier studies.

Current Metrics

In December 2013, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, together with the American Friends Service Committee, released a comprehensive report detailing the state’s current land-ownership figures and updating the findings of both Miller and the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force.

Using 2011 property data, the study revealed that the concentration of land ownership in the state has actually declined during the past 30 years. While Miller’s study concluded that two dozen corporate landowners held one-third of the state’s 12 million privately owned acres, the 2013 study showed that the top 25 private owners held just 17.6 percent of the state’s 13 million acres of private land. The authors concluded that this was “still a significant percentage but a dramatic decline in concentration of ownership.”

The researchers also identified a new type of corporate entity that did not exist during the previous studies now plays a dominant role, namely the timber management companies that maintain forestland as financial assets. In fact, they found that in 2011, “the North Carolina-based Heartwood Forestland Fund, a timberland investment company that owns 500,366 acres in 31 counties, [was] West Virginia’s largest landowner.”

The report’s authors noted that lands classified as “managed timberlands” were eligible for certain tax credits that significantly lower their tax rates.

According to Rouse’s study, another factor deflating tax rates on corporate land in Appalachia is their artificially low market value. While the companies owning the land may have changed ownership several times, the land rarely goes on the market. As a result, he notes, the property value cannot be based on a recent sale price. And because this land cannot be used for homes, the residential market nearby becomes more competitive and expensive. “The result is that homeowners bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden,” Rouse concluded.

Case Study: Wyoming County, W.Va.

The 2013 West Virginia study identified Wyoming County as the state’s most corporately owned county. It determined that the top 10 landowners hold 75.8 percent of the county’s private land, and “just two companies — Heartwood Forestland Company and Norfolk Southern — own over 50 percent of the county’s privately held land.”

The most recent available property records for Wyoming County uphold the findings of the 2013 study. For example, Pocahontas Land Company, a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern, is still listed as owning more than 77,000 acres in the county, or roughly 25 percent of the privately owned land, with an average assessed property value of less than $350 per acre for 2016.

For Dewey Houck, president and founder of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League in Mullens, W.Va., these large land-holding companies have their own personalities and policies, and each should be considered individually.

According to Houck, Pocahontas Land Company has cooperated with his organization — a nonprofit community group working to bring opportunities to southern West Virginia — even leasing them several properties for agricultural and recreational purposes.

But another large landowner, Western Pocahontas Properties, has been harder to work with. The company’s parcels of land that were once accessible to the public are now locked behind gates with “no trespassing” signs. “For years,” Houck says, “the land was used by the public. Especially hunters could go on their property and hunt, and use the land same as public land, and what they’ve done is started leasing their land to whoever can pay the fee that they charge.”

This Western Pocahontas property, near Mullens, W.Va., is locked behind a gate and “no trespassing” signs. Photo Ruby Anne Ingram

This Western Pocahontas property, near Mullens, W.Va., is locked behind a gate and “no trespassing” signs. Photo Ruby Anne Ingram

Case Study: Wise County, Va.

While West Virginia has been more thoroughly studied, it is not the only state in the region dealing with the impacts of having much of its privately owned land concentrated in the hands of a few. In Wise County, Va., a heavily mined area in the southwestern part of the state, roughly 45 percent of the land is owned by corporations, Carl Snodgrass, the county’s economic development director, told Appalachian Voices.

An analysis of public property records reveals that two corporate entities — Penn Virginia and the Heartwood Forestland Fund — together own nearly one-third of the county’s surface land. Penn Virginia is listed as the owner of more than 58,000 acres and Heartwood Forestland Fund nearly 28,000 acres, or 22.5 and 10.7 percent of the county, respectively.

While most corporate-owned lands in Wise are in rural areas, they are surrounded by struggling towns that could benefit from policy changes that expand the tax base. “The one thing that people in Wise County seem to be most aware of is the threat of towns losing their incorporations, simply because the tax base is not able to support services,” says Rouse.

Shannon C. Scott, administrator for Wise County, does not believe these corporate holdings hinder local economic initiatives. “For instance, if [the corporations] know that it’s a project that will not interfere with their future development in the way of natural gas or coal extraction … they work with us very closely,” he says.

The Impact on Appalachia

The view from the U.S. Forest Service’s Birch Knob Observation Tower shows reclaimed surface mine land. Photo by Bill Harris,

The view from the U.S. Forest Service’s Birch Knob Observation Tower shows reclaimed surface mine land. Photo by Bill Harris,

For more than a century, corporate land ownership has defined much of the region. While some in the region find ways to cooperate with these large companies, others feel cause for concern.

In an email, Dr. Ronald Eller, a retired professor from the University of Kentucky, wrote that the concentration of corporate landowners in the region “continues to be a major issue limiting the tax base (especially with the decline of coal production), but more importantly limiting the options for alternative land uses.”

Ideas about what those land uses could be are as diverse as the people in the region and not mutually exclusive. Eller would like to see an expansion of public lands, and Rouse a change in tax policy. And others, like Houck, simply hope the landholding corporations will open more of their land to hunting and recreation. But regardless of how — or if — land ownership patterns change, who controls the land will greatly impact the future of Appalachia.

Catholic Letter Addresses Environment, Economy

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia released its third pastoral letter in December 2015, stating in its introduction, “We recognize a deepening ecological crisis and new pressures on our struggling communities.”

Catholic pastoral letters are typically written by a bishop, but this People’s Pastoral highlights the voices of ordinary citizens. The Catholic Committee of Appalachia spent four years conducting listening sessions and interviews throughout the region, documenting the stories of residents from a variety of religious traditions.

The committee focuses on social justice and environmental issues including mountaintop removal coal mining, water quality, climate change, poverty and health. The People’s Pastoral is one of many declarations from various religions in the recent years that highlights a faith-based ethic of environmental stewardship. To learn more, visit — Molly Moore

New Program Makes Learning Cherokee Easier

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Cherokee is one of the most difficult languages to learn, according to Barbara Duncan, the education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C. But a new language program — “Your Grandmother’s Cherokee” — is changing that.

The program results from the insights of John Standingdeer, Jr., a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He told the Asheville Citizen-Times that he did not grow up speaking Cherokee and found learning it hard.

According to Duncan, long Cherokee words contain as much information as an English sentence. But then Standingdeer discovered patterns within the words, patterns which Duncan says are “like a math equation.”

Since 2006, Standingdeer and Duncan — with computer-programing help from Duncan’s sister — have spent their free time developing the language program. In October 2015, their method was granted a U.S. patent.

“Your Grandmother’s Cherokee” teaches the language not by memorizing the complicated words, but by recognizing the patterns within them, making Cherokee easier to understand and use.

Duncan estimates that only 200 of the 15,000 members of the Eastern Band grew up speaking their tribal language, and all are over 55 years old. She feels an urgency to study this endangered language, which she stresses is “the original language of the Appalachians.”

A symposium will be held May 29 to June 2 at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, to explore using Standingdeer and Duncan’s method to preserve and teach other indigenous North American languages.

The program currently offers an online dictionary and two levels of coursework, with two additional levels expected soon. For more information visit

Childhood Blood Lead Levels Falling in Appalachia

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

Elevated lead levels in children has gained national attention after the recent report that thousands were exposed to the heavy metal in Flint, Mich. In Flint, the city water system was the source of contamination, but lead exposure typically occurs from chipped lead-based paint found in old homes.

Children are more at risk of having high amounts of lead in their blood, especially those living in poverty. Elevated blood lead levels are likely to cause learning or behavioral impairments during childhood development.

In Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, the number of children reported to have lead poisoning has decreased since 1997, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but neither North Carolina nor Virginia have reported data since 2009. Tennessee provided data in 2014, but had no past statistics available for comparison. — Dylan Turner

Bill Aims to Boost Local Appalachian Economies

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

A bipartisan bill led by members of Congress from four Appalachian states aims to revitalize local economies in the region through the restoration of previously mined lands.

Introduced in early February by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the RECLAIM Act would amend the primary federal law regulating surface coal mining to accelerate the release of $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund over the next five years.

Projects that could be funded under the bill include land restoration for industrial, commercial, agricultural or recreational purposes that would benefit areas heavily impacted by the coal industry’s decline.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), another lead sponsor, called the legislation an “imperative effort to help reinvigorate” Appalachian communities.

— Brian Sewell

New Mine Safety Standards Survive Industry Challenge

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

A federal court has upheld new mine safety standards that will go into effect on Feb. 1. The new rules require the use of continuous personal dust monitors and the collection of more frequent air samples. Industry groups unsuccessfully challenged the implementation of these standards twice. The new rules come as cases of black lung disease — an irreversible disease caused by inhaling coal dust — have risen dramatically. Since the 1990s, the frequency of the disease in long-term miners has doubled, from five to ten percent. — Elizabeth E. Payne

Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Coal, Congress and the art of lying

Monday, January 11th, 2016 - posted by tarence
By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that's finding an audience in Congress.

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that’s finding an audience in Congress.

It’s amazing how much work goes into stretching the truth. It’s even more amazing when media outlets and political leaders latch onto that “truth” and peddle it without scrutiny.

A recent and relevant example: an economic impact analysis of the Stream Protection Rule, commissioned by the National Mining Association and written by Ramboll Environ, which is a member of the NMA. In short, the analysis predicts that the Stream Protection Rule will all but deal a lethal blow to the American coal industry. It is 82 pages of the kind of overblown, headline-grabbing hysteria found in modern politics, filled with doomsday scenarios, disingenuous methodologies and misinformation.

Doomsday Scenarios

The proposed Stream Protection Rule is intended to protect American streams from the worst environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. It represents an update on science and policy that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not addressed since 1983, the year the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule was added to the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

The NMA’s analysis of the Stream Protection Rule is grim: between 50 and 95 percent of the nation’s current coal workers will lose their jobs as a direct result of the rule. Its predictions for Appalachia are even grimmer: 30,000 to 52,000 workers, or 60 to 105 percent of the current Appalachian coal workforce, will be cut. 105 percent, that’s truly unbelievable.

According to Jonathan Halpern, a former economist at the World Bank Group and a current professor of energy and infrastructure economics at Georgetown University, the NMA’s projections are seriously flawed. Halpern points out that the NMA relied on unrealistically high coal projections for the 2020-2040 forecast period that do not take into account how factors such as natural gas production, coal seam access and availability, and national policies such as the Clean Power Plan will impact production. Additionally, the study factored in loss of access to coal reserves that are not currently controlled by coal or landholding corporations to project future “losses” in production and employment. As Halpern points out, “[This] inclusion … exaggerates the size of the economic resource base and the consequent ‘loss’ which the study posits.”

In other words, the NMA forecasted a falsely optimistic future for coal, then compared that future to a grim post-Stream Protection Rule future, and projected a doomsday scenario. There is a litany of other problems with the analysis:

  • It uses out-of-date information about the overall financial health of the coal industry. The figures used for coal production, new permits and number of employed miners only go through 2013.
  • It expands the definition of a coal worker to include 20,000 workers not currently employed by the coal industry. The study posits that these workers – which include the freight rail workforce, contractors to the mining companies, and service providers – are employed as the coal mining workforce base, against which the NMA applied employment and income loss multipliers to estimate overall job losses over 25 years. As Halpern points out, this inclusion greatly magnifies the resulting estimates of job loss.
  • It assumes an immediate implementation of the Stream Protection Rule. This is simply not the case, as the rule has not been finalized and won’t be implemented for at least another five years.

Disingenuous Methodology

Ramboll Environ, the NMA member commissioned to conduct the analysis, chose a curious methodology for estimating the Stream Protection Rule’s impact on future coal production. They sat down with 18 unnamed mining companies and asked them how they thought the Stream Protection Rule would impact their bottom lines. It probably doesn’t have to be pointed out that there is nothing scientific or objective about this approach.

Another serious shortcoming of the report is that it rejects any cost-benefit framework. In other words, this is simply a cost analysis. According to Halpern, we would likely see billions of dollars in benefits in the form of safety and health improvements for communities as a result of the Stream Protection Rule. A 2011 study estimated that the public health burden coal operations put on Appalachian citizens costs around $75 billion every year.”

But the NMA refused to take into account any benefits that the rule could provide.

“We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars,” Halpern told me. “But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”


As mentioned above, one of the biggest fallacies in the NMA’s report is its assumption that the Stream Protection Rule will be implemented immediately, rather than gradually. But to add to this, the study — or at least the coal executives who were polled for the study — assumes a 100-foot buffer zone around streams. This absolutely isn’t the case, and it’s the reason so many clean water advocates are disappointed with the draft version of the rule. (Such a policy would have completely prohibited all mining activities within 100 feet of streams.)

Perhaps the biggest — and most perplexing — fabrication in this report is its claim that the Stream Protection Rule will replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. It will not. The Bush-era rule was tossed out by a federal judge in early 2014, so its inclusion casts further doubt on the validity of the report.

What Communities Really Need

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a study predicated entirely on the fear-inducing prospect of job loss that fails to even consider the potential benefits of environmental protection, of clean water, of lowered risks to health. This fact alone tells us where the NMA’s interests really reside; an organization whose mission is to protect coal mining profits, rather than promote the well-being and empowerment of miners, their families and their communities, can really only claim to be concerned with production loss, rather than job loss. It’s incredible and a little sad that the NMA spent 82 pages trying to convince us that it cares about anything else.

Unfortunately, without a strong policy program to replace lost mining jobs — whether that’s in the form of New Deal-like jobs programs, robust federal funding and grassroots initiatives, or something else entirely — studies like this will continue to impact federal legislation.

For example, this week the House is set to vote on the STREAM Act, which seeks to effectively kill the Stream Protection Rule. Members of Congress who are voting on this piece of legislation will no doubt have seen the headlines, strategically broadcast by the NMA, claiming that the Stream Protection Rule will slash nearly one hundred thousand coal jobs.

Without voices pushing back on this narrative in regional and national media, this disingenuousness has the unfortunate effect of holding back progress for coal miners who may face losing their jobs due to a failing industry, rather than presenting them with tangible solutions.

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Bleak outlook for coal in 2016

Friday, January 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

The new year brings more bad news for a battered industry

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the dismal year coal had in 2015, more hard times for the industry are ahead. Nowhere is the struggle more real than here in Central Appalachia.

The latest look into a window of coal’s burning house comes courtesy of Downstream Strategies. The West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm has been charting Central Appalachian coal’s decline for years and is urging policymakers to plan for a future in which coal is no longer king.

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies "All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?"

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?”

The group’s new white paper, creatively titled “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?,” tells the story of Appalachian coal over the past few decades in five simple charts like the one above. It also considers how coal’s decline contributes to the budget deficits wracking West Virginia. In summary:

Future demand for Central Appalachian coal will likely continue to decline—primarily due to the increasing cost of mining thinner, harder-to-access coal seams and competition from cheaper natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency improvements at homes and businesses. Future environmental regulations on coal mines and power plants, such as the federal Clean Power Plan, may further reduce demand for West Virginia coal.

For data related to regional coal production and projections, Downstream Strategies looked to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Just today, that agency shared its own update on coal prices and production in 2015. While the main lesson from the chart above is probably that it’s best to be skeptical when it comes to EIA projections, the severity of the situation in Appalachia becomes even clearer when the region is viewed relative to other domestic coal reserves.

Screen shot from EIA's Today in Energy "Coal production and prices decline in 2015."

Screen shot from EIA’s Today in Energy “Coal production and prices decline in 2015.”

According to the EIA, the amount of coal produced in the Central Appalachian basin in 2015 was 40 percent below its annual average during the period from 2010 to 2014. Wherever coal is still competitive, less and less of it is coming from Central Appalachia.

Anyway, back to the Downstream Strategies report, which wraps up with yet another firm reminder that coal’s steep decline and its consequences are anything but unexpected. As the authors conclude:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a whole.

New approaches are needed.

When it comes to coal, the question for regional policymakers now is not so much how to make it better, but what to do when it gets even worse. If we may suggest a resolution for the new year: Don’t wait any longer. Recognize and respond to the realities of today’s energy market and the economic challenges facing the region.

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