Proud to be a coal miner's defender

About the author: State Rep. Rick G. Nelson, D-Middlesboro, represents the 87th District.
About the author: State Rep. Rick G. Nelson, D-Middlesboro, represents the 87th District.

This past session, I sponsored House Bill 269, which was signed into law designating the third week of August as Coal Miners Appreciation Week. I did this to highlight, support and applaud the men and women who work in the industry and proudly carry on the strong tradition of coal mining in Kentucky.

As an Eastern Kentucky native and legislator for two coal-producing counties, I am a strong, sometimes emotional, champion for our miners and the work they do every day to keep our homes air conditioned, our lights blazing and our offices open for business.

Unfortunately, this noble occupation has become somewhat vilified in the press, where critics from California to New York to right here in Kentucky are on a mission to put these fine men and women out of work.

It wasn't always like this. Coal was discovered in Kentucky and used by Dr. Thomas Walker, an early pioneer, in 1750. By 1820, the first commercial mine opened near the Green River and Paradise in Muhlenberg County.

By 1843, Kentucky miners were producing 100,000 tons per year; by 1879 it was a million tons. Mining employed thousands of workers, providing their families a place to live and access to social services. Mine safety brought about the creation of the United Mine Workers of America, formed to advocate for better wages and working conditions.

In 1947, the Kentucky Coal Association was formed, and in 1970 the Kentucky Coal Severance Tax was established. It recognized that coal was a finite natural resource, an asset from which coal-producing counties should benefit. A percentage of the severance tax was directed back to the coal-producing counties to use for economic development and infrastructure improvements. Since that time, millions of coal-severance dollars have built roads and water and sewer lines, and made other lasting improvements to communities, towns and neighborhoods throughout Eastern and Western Kentucky.

By 1972, Kentucky was the leading coal-producing state and Kentucky has been one of the top three coal producers in the United States for the last 50 years. Today, Kentucky ranks third in coal production.

Protections for miners became important as more coal was produced and more miners were on the job. In just the last 10 years, Kentucky has passed 15 laws designed to improve and increase mine inspections, monitor mine air quality, enforce coal company compliance, improve training and workplace practices and implement stiff penalties for operators whose miners suffer injuries on the job.

Coal mining is one of the largest employers in Eastern Kentucky. According to the latest data, Kentucky currently employs 18,850 coal miners.

The Kentucky Coal Association's latest statistics show that Kentucky coal miners produced 107,338,000 tons of coal. Eastern Kentucky miners produced 74,719,000 tons; 32,619,000 tons were mined from Western Kentucky.

The economic impact of coal mining is staggering.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Kentucky coal industry generated $3.5 billion in sales out-of-state during fiscal year 2005-06 through coal sales to customers in 30 other states and four foreign countries.

Kentucky coal accounts for about one-tenth of U.S. coal production and nearly one-fourth of U.S. production east of the Mississippi River. Nearly one-third of all the coal mines in the nation are found in Kentucky. Coal-fired plants typically generate more than nine-tenths of the electricity produced in Kentucky.

Coal miners have had to suffer the increased barrage of negative comments, editorials, "documentaries" and "studies" which attack their chosen profession as a killer of the environment.

These detractors want to put them out of work, and to some degree are succeeding as more do-gooders and Environmental Protection Agency officials hold up permits, shut down power plants and deny new applications for clean coal technologies.

To these people I say, "Shame on you."

I cannot remember a time in recent history when a profession or industry came under this kind of radical, misguided assault which has taken on a fever pitch. The men and women who work in the mining industry are good, honest, intelligent people who want to make a living to feed their kids, buy a house and vehicles, send their children to college and have a nice retirement.

How are these dreams different from the people who put on a suit and tie to work in an air-conditioned office, stare at a computer all day, drink $4 lattes and head home to a giant screen television to watch the latest reality show?

Let's talk reality. Where do those folks think the electricity is coming from to fuel those air conditioners, coffee machines, computers and TVs? Not from the wind or the sun or the rivers or the oceans. It's coming from coal, plain and simple. And while they are enjoying all of these nice things, their Kentucky brothers and sisters are coming home from a day of mining, where they've been underground or facing the elements outside for an eight-hour shift.

But you won't hear them complain. They appreciate their jobs and take pride in keeping the economy running. They are the best of the best, and I thank them publicly for their service.

If you agree with even one point I've made, please thank a coal miner, send a letter to your paper applauding the miners or say an appreciative prayer for our Kentucky coal miners. Ask the good Lord to keep them safe as they tirelessly toil to make our lives better.