The spread of surface mining in Central Appalachia 1985-2015
The obituaries for the coal industry have been coming for years now, but lately, it seems as though the end is approaching more swiftly.
Dispatches from reporters Bill Estep and Will Wright have documented the supposed “win” of coal companies belonging to the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice finally paying late property taxes, minus penalties and interest, and an increase in environmental violations because the market downturn means companies can’t afford to meet reclamation and other safety requirements.
Most recently, they wrote about the bankruptcies of Revelation and Blackjewel coal companies, which then caused banks to actually claw back paychecks from miners’ bank accounts, leaving them without money for mortgages and other necessities. Families reported bounced checks on bills they had paid with those checks.
All of these problems, coal companies say, are linked to the market downturn for King Coal, which in April and May was outpaced by renewable energy for the first time. The problems have something else in common: They hurt the people who live in these communities, people who have stood by the industry, worked for it, and defended it. Yes, coal has made a great deal of money for a few people, and fueled our nation’s insatiable energy needs for many years. But it’s left environmental degradation and poverty in its wake across Eastern Kentucky. Its demise appears be no different.
Longtime Harlan County resident Roy Silver says the coal industry, along with others “likes to socialize the risk and privatize their profits.” If Revelation (which had the most environmental violations in the state in 2017-2018) goes bankrupt, who then keeps paying for the costs of proper reclamation of a mine site? Most likely, state and federal coffers. If coal tax revenues don’t cover black lung health benefits, money comes out of the U.S. Treasury. If a Blackjewel miner can’t pay his mortgage because the company took his paycheck for work he’d already done and never put it back, he can get state and federal benefits.
Blackjewel and Revelation also owe millions to state and federal agencies, including $60 million to the U.S. Department of the Interior and $6 million to the Kentucky State Treasurer, according to Wright and Estep. They also owe millions to private equipment and fuel companies, including “$4 million to Aquatic Resources Management in Lexington, $3.7 million to Jones Oil Company, Inc., in Pikeville, and $2.2 million to Republic Superior Products, LLC., in Lackey.”
“But those at the top of the companies will make out like bandits,” Silver said.
The Blackjewel situation is so egregious, and has caused such an uproar that Gov. Matt Bevin announced Tuesday that the state Labor Cabinet would open an investigation. The press release featured a series of politicians decrying Blackjewel’s actions. “Many of our Eastern Kentucky coal miners have been done wrong,” said Harlan County Judge/Executive Dan Mosley.
Yes, they have, and for longer than since last week. President Donald Trump promised that he would renew the coal economy, but we can see that he’s no match for the free market. And now politicians should turn their attention back to what they will do to help coal miners through these last painful throes of a post-coal economy.
Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.