In his recent commentary, Rep. Rick Nelson stated a little vaguely, "Mine safety brought about the creation of the United Mine Workers, formed to advocate for better wages and working conditions."
It's a pretty vision, the coal companies and their chums the coal miners marching nobly together toward a brighter tomorrow.
But, as most of us know, the lack of mine safety, along with low wages and terrible working conditions, brought about sustained, courageous protests by miners, which the coal bosses met with head-cracking violence.
That the UMW was established is a tribute to the unflinching solidarity of coal workers despite — not because of — the coal companies. Nelson goes on to claim that the coal companies agreed to the establishment of the Kentucky coal severance tax out of a fine feeling of community responsibility. Does he think we don't remember that they fought like dogs against it?
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And does he really believe that protests against tearing down our mountains and dumping the toxic overburden into the handiest valley are protests against coal miners? Mountaintop-removal mining doesn't create mining jobs. It eliminates them.
Underground mining employs a third more workers per ton than mountaintop-removal mining. That's why coal companies insist on doing it. It's more profitable. Nelson announces that he's a coal miner defender, but he's really a coal industry spokesman. There's a big difference — as there is between protesting against mountaintop removal and against coal miners.
He also hijacks the language. Since when is it radical to want to save a mountain and conservative to want to tear it down? He accuses the opposition of being "outside agitators" — that's an old trick, used most recently by Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Many Americans, it's true, are dismayed by mountaintop-removal mining, but the fight to preserve what's left of the great Appalachian range has been waged mainly in Appalachia. The coal companies based (and often paying their income taxes) in states such as Florida and New York are the real outside agitators. One of the biggest mountaintop removal operators in Kentucky is a subsidiary of an India company. The opposition in Kentucky is pure Kentucky.
Here are some facts: Only 20 percent of the coal mined in Kentucky is used in Kentucky; 80 percent is shipped to states with higher per capita income than ours. A careful 2006 study by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development estimated that, all things considered, the coal industry in that year brought the state $528 million through taxes and direct and indirect employment.
What did the privilege of hosting the coal industry cost Kentucky? The study calculated $648 million — a figure that did not include the expense of dealing with issues like the poisoning of rivers from mining debris or the costs borne by individuals whose property was damaged or whose children have been sickened by the side effects of mountaintop removal.
Does this make sense to you? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off, our environment be irreversibly damaged, our health endangered while some of our politicians ferociously defend the coal industry's right to do whatever it wants to its workers and to the rest of us? We can keep the lights on and create jobs from underground mining and sustainable alternatives to coal.
If we can't look ahead and solve this problem, what will our grandchildren have, when every mountain that has a skinny little vein of coal running under it has been torn down? Contaminated rivers, destroyed forests, flattened mountains. Unemployed miners. And not one coal company in sight.