[imgcontainer] [img:coal2_miner.jpeg] Coal miners listened to Republican Mitt Romney speak at a mine in Beallsville, Ohio, in August.  [/imgcontainer]

The Good Ol’ Days of winning elections in the coalfields with a bull horn mounted on top of a winged-back car, pints of moonshine, a fistful of $20 bills and a fat cemetery register apparently have lost their appeal in the 2012 Presidential election.

Coal miners are facing dark days ahead and politicians seeking an endorsement from a coalminer may have to put up a job to get his vote.  

Pink slips are being handed out by the hundreds as shifts come and go. Miners and their families are scared of what the future holds for coal country. Will they be able to stay in their homes and communities if there is no future for coal? 

Smitty Smith of southwest Virginia got his pink slip today after 23 years with Alpha Coal working on a strip job. He has high school and college age children. His family is asking for prayers for another job — not a handout, or a speech from a politician filled with empty promises.  

Miners have a history of banding together in tough times so their voices may be heard. And with fewer than 50 days until the Presidential election, there is no louder voice than the vote. However, many miners, including the 100,000 strong United Mine Workers of America are sitting out this election without endorsing a presidential candidate, according to UMW President, Cecil Roberts.  

The UMWA historically has supported the Democratic candidate, but Roberts contends Obama’s strict and immediate enforcement of Environmental Protection Agency regulations will leave miners in the dark.  

Problems in the coalfields are multiple and come from many directions, but politicians who understand the coal culture and genuinely care about the future of those living and working in Appalachia have the resources needed to resolve many of these threatening issues.  The most powerful resource the miner has is his vote. 

Clean Air

One major problem is blamed on President Obama’s EPA. According to UMWA President Roberts, if and when fully implemented, these new regulations (Cross State Air Pollution rule in July 2011 and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule in December 2011) will severely cut back long-term use of coal as fuel for generating electricity. 

An adjustment period has been requested to transition existing coal-fired plants into compliance over a period of time, but no additional time has been allowed so far. Also these government regulations mean it is not going to be economically feasible to build new coal-fired plants for many years, if ever, and as the current ones age the market for thermal coal will diminish. 

There are nearly 600 coal generating facilities and 1,100 manufacturing facilities using coal in America. Job wise, you do the math. 

Romney is faring no better with the airing of the 2003 ad where as Governor of Massachusetts, at a press conference in front of a coal plant, he vowed, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant kills people.” 

Black Lung

Republican leaders on the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee inserted language into the 2013 budget bill for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that would prevent the agency from spending any money to implement new proposed regulations that would reduce miners’ exposure to coal dust. 

In West Virginia alone, over 2,000 miners have died of black lung over the last decade.  More than 70,000 have died since federal regulations were put in place in 1969.  This action from uncaring politicians is nothing less than a potential death sentence for miners.

Natural Gas, a Coal Competitor

Just when coal was most vulnerable, another blow struck the coalfields — the tapping of the Marcellus shale gas fields in West Virginia and surrounding states. The price of natural gas dropped below that of coal, and some utilities have taken this opportunity to make the investment, switching from coal to gas.

Coal production is already expected to fall by more than 103.3 million tons from 2011 to 2012. Coal’s usage in the electricity generation field fell below 40 percent in the last two months of last year. That had not happened since 1978.

Mother Nature 

Even Ol’ Mother Nature seems to have a grudge against coal miners, giving the entire United States the winter of 2011–12, the fourth warmest on record, and reducing the need for power produced by coal. The eastern part of the country experienced uncommon warmth, exactly the part of the country where the nation’s coal production is used to generate power.

Who Will Help the Miner?

Three major events in less than one year have sent shock waves throughout the hollers and hills of the Appalachian coalfields: 

1. An extremely mild winter

2. The price of natural gas dropping below that of coal

3. EPA’s regulations putting coal’s future as a fuel for electricity generation in question.

With the bleak outlook on mining as a job in Appalachia, what should miners’ demand from their political leaders?

At minimum, there should be a plan that would give coal companies and miners time to move out of a coal economy. Miners need to be retrained in jobs besides coal. And there needs to be a plan for building a new economy in the Appalachian coalfields.

Will either one of the Presidential candidates earn the miner’s vote by helping him and his family find a way, a life, a future in the coalfields?

Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer.

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