Trump, Congress must stand by coal communities

The Kentucky Coal Museum, center, a former coal-company commissary in the Harlan County town of Benham, will soon be going solar.
The Kentucky Coal Museum, center, a former coal-company commissary in the Harlan County town of Benham, will soon be going solar. bestep@herald-leader.com

Coal-mining communities are the backbone of this country. For decades we’ve kept the lights on in America by sacrificing our personal well-being. We need Congress to act to protect the health and pension benefits under threat to expire at the end of this month.

Many made this choice because they were promised lifelong health and pension protections. These protections are now being threatened by our lawmakers, an issue that if not resolved by April 28 would mean thousands of miners could be left to fend for themselves. President Donald Trump has made many promises to protect communities like mine in Harlan County, and this is his chance to work with Congress and stand by his word.

I grew up in Lynch and now live in Benham. When I hear of these promises to bring back the coal jobs to towns like mine not only am I skeptical but I also wonder, is this actually protecting our communities? I come from a long line of coal miners, extending back to my great-grandfather. Coal was discovered in Kentucky in 1750 — if there’s anybody who knows coal, it’s us.

But coal jobs have been declining for years, as machines made processes more efficient, requiring fewer workers. And as we switch to cheaper forms of electricity like natural gas and renewables, the demand for coal continues to drop year after year. This year, coal plants churned out the lowest levels this country has seen since 1978. In Harlan County, unemployment in February was more than double the national average. These are honest families who want to find work but can’t.

This is the reality on the ground, while our president vows to bring back jobs that have been leaving for decades, and while Congress struggles to keep current health and pension benefits in place for those coal miners who have already earned them. For some retired miners, these protections can mean the difference between life and death.

Black-lung disease, caused by inhaling coal dust over long periods of time, is one of the many unfortunate realities that coal miners have to face. Advanced cases have recently spiked in Kentucky. The excessive coughing and shortness of breath caused by this disease can make it feel like one is suffocating. That is simply no way to live. Exposure to coal-mine dust also causes other pulmonary diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and exposure to toxic pollutants in mines leads to higher rates of cancer, cognitive damage and other illnesses in coal workers. Workers in mining, quarrying, gas and oil extraction are four times as likely as the average American worker to suffer from severe or fatal injuries while on the job.

This is why our community is moving forward in creating new opportunities for its residents and businesses. In 2015, I was able to help bring forward a project called Benham$aves, which helps residents make energy-efficiency upgrades to their homes, leading to big savings on their electricity bills. This money circulates back into the local economy and creates local jobs.

Most recently, the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham announced it will be placing solar panels on its roof in order to cut down on its electricity costs. Local solar-energy systems company Bluegrass Solar will install the solar panels. These are the kinds of economic-development stories we need to keep welcoming into towns like Benham going forward.

We know that coal isn’t coming back. But Congress, along with the president, can fulfill its commitments to Appalachia and coal country by not abandoning these communities that have been the backbone of our modern economy. We need leaders who have our best interests in mind, and new opportunities that won’t take our health in exchange.

Carl Shoupe of Benham is a retired coal miner.