A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

USA & Colombia: Coal Is The Wound That Binds

By Bill Kovarik
First of a series: Coal around the World  

Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia is even more destructive than in Colombia, said two union miners from that South American country on a tour of the coalfields this November.

“It was a great surprise for us to see that here in the U.S. open pit mining was being carried out in such a reckless manner,” said Estevinson Avila, president of a coal miners’ union for a mine operated by the Drummond Coal Co. of Birmingham, Alabama.

The Colombian mines are located on near the Caribbean Sea on the border with Venezuela. Colombia ships about 70 million tons of coal to the U.S., Canada, and Europe every year and the amount is expected to rise rapidly.

Although the human rights and labor safety situation is much worse in Colombia, the basic care taken for the environment is apparently worse in Kentucky than anywhere else the miners have been.

“We saw very little planning and engineering,” Avila said. “The companies were not taking the responsibility they should take.” Among other problems, topsoil was not being saved for reclamation and water sources were not protected here in the U.S. happens in Colombia, he said.

Another advantage in Colombia, Avila said, is that under international labor law, miners only work 20 years in order to retire on a pension. Here miners work until they are in their 60s before they can retire.

Avila said pay is a very serious issue for union members, and several strikes have been called to force pay raises. Currently, truck drivers can make up to $3 an hour, compared to $15 to $30 here in the U.S. However, Drummond also uses a subcontracting system in the mines, and laborers may make less than 45 cents an hour, Avila said. Drummond recently told trade magazines that it employs 2,701 hourly employees and 2,121 hourly contractors.

Avila also said that one of the most serious safety violations taking place in the Drummond mine involved dropping 10 to 15 ton boulders from a high conveyor belt onto trucks awaiting below. Over 50 men have had spinal injuries from truck crashes in the past few years, he said.

Violence from right wing death squads is also a very serious issue for the union. Two of the former union presidents in his position have been assassinated by masked men in front of other miners. Links between Drummond and the death squads have been alleged in Congressional testimony and federal court in 2007 by the International Labor Rights Fund and the United Steelworkers Union. Drummond won the case, which was one of the first brought under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789.
Both Avila and Jesús Brochero, a union official at nearby Carrejon surface mine, said they did not want U.S. or European coal companies to leave Colombia. However, they are demanding an end to mine safety violations, increased wages and improved social responsibility on the part of the mining companies.

During their trip to the U.S., the men attempted to visit the mining offices of Drummond Co. in Birmingham but company officials refused to meet with them.

A Drummond statement said that the company “takes very seriously the well-being of our workers and goes to great lengths in our Colombian operations to provide a safe and secure working environment.”

The United Mine Workers of America union has been in close touch with union officials at the Drummond Colombia mine, holding high level meetings in the U.S. last year and sending observers to the scene of the mine strike in Colombia. Recently, UMWA president Cecil Roberts sent a letter to Drummond “demanding that they respect both the human and labor rights of the Colombian miners, and warning that we would be following up,” according to UMWA Communications Director Phil Smith.

Drummond and two other coal companies together produced about 70 million tons of coal in 2007 from Colombia for an overall $30 billion in exports – at least twice the value of Colombian coffee exports.

Appalachian Voices volunteer Sara Pennington accompanied the officials of the Sintramienergética union of Colombia as they toured the Appalachian coal fields and then visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and staged a protest in a Birmingham park.

“If we stop mountaintop removal mining here, we have to at least make sure that workers cant be abused by coal industry there,” Pennington said.

For more information check out the United Mine Workers Journal’s July/August 2007 issue and “The Dirty Story Behind Local Energy” in The Boston Phoenix.