protestors at Blair MountainProtestors march on Blair Mountain.Photo: Appalachian VoicesSomething 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.

Here’s a great (and brief) update on the march from the team at that is well worth a watch:

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 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 [PDF]). 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 a presidential candidate who similarly opposes the method.
  • Majorities of two key audiences — independents and union households — oppose mountaintop removal.
  • Voters reject the jobs vs. environment frame of mountaintop-removal supporters.
  • Renewable energy is seen as the long-term key to energy security, economic growth, and the quality of life of local communities.
  • There is 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 numb
er 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 percent over the same time period that the overall U.S. economy shed more than 5 percent of its workforce. In fact, the number of mining jobs has increased substantially since the EPA started it’s “enhanced review” of mine permits and since their new guidance on surface mine permitting went into effect in April of last year.

Jobs at Appalachian coal mines are up since the start of the recession.

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. The 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 on 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 counterproductive 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 counterproductive 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, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) 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 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).

Coal's declining share of U.S. electricity generation.

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.

The productive capacity of active U.S. coal mines reached a new record in 2010.

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 U.S. 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. First, 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 w
ay 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 Byrd’s office about developing and introducing some such bill, and had he 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.

To take action to help protect Blair Mountain and other mountains and communities threatened by mountaintop-removal coal mining, visit