Coal Miner

Coal miner. (Photo via CC)

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency offered Americans the chance to share their opinions about its new carbon reduction regulation. The public hearings were held in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver and Pittsburgh. 

The hearings have drawn critics and proponents alike, with some organizing anti-Obama rallies and at least one, Kentucky’s Stanley Sturgill, traveling 1,300 miles to tell the EPA how desperately American workers need their help.

Tensions are running high, and neither side is satisfied.

The Plan to Reduce America’s Emissions

In early June, President Obama announced the EPA’s sweeping new plan to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. Each state would be required to cut more or less emissions, depending on how reliant they currently are on major carbon emitters like coal-fired power plants. Washington state, which uses minimal coal, is slated to reduce its emissions by 72 percent. West Virginia, which relies on coal for 90 percent of its energy, would only need to reduce by 19.8 percent.

Even so, the backlash to the president’s announcement was immediate and fierce. Republicans almost unanimously opposed it and the coal industry is readying for a legal battle of epic proportions. The CEO of the largest independent coal producer in the U.S. called the EPA liars and said thousands of his employees will be stripped of their livelihoods “for no benefit at all.”

For men and women of the coal industry, that fear is not ill-founded. The new EPA limit, if passed, would affect some 600 coal-fired power plants. These plants are responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation and it is believed that several would be forced to shut down.

The Obama administration’s stated goal is to not only reduce carbon emissions but also increase the production of renewable energy. The hope is that the EPA regulation will inspire innovation and transition coal workers into new energy jobs.

But the coal industry does not see it that way.

Union Rallies and Arrests in Pittsburgh

On Thursday, the United Mine Workers of America marched outside the William S. Moorehead Federal Building chanting, “Hey, hey, EPA! Don’t take our jobs away!”

It was the second day of the EPA’s public hearings and the union members were loud and 5,000 strong. “You’re sending our jobs to China!” one member shouted at the 300 environmental activists gathered on the opposite side of the street.

Eventually, 14 members, including the UMW’s International President Cecil Roberts, were arrested for sitting on the federal building steps.

The day before, Joel Watts of the West Virginia Coal Forum began the coal rally with a prayer: “Give us the strength to stand strong against those who lie to us and hide behind their laws.”

This is the general sentiment of the coal industry and those who labor within it: Us vs. Them. For the average worker, talk of transitioning into a greener and more efficient economy is simply the government kowtowing to the interests of another industry. Green or black, the immediate reality is always, What will happen when these jobs disappear?

At the Pittsburgh hearings, Kathy Adkins spoke on behalf of her husband, who is a retired West Virginia coal miner: “If you shut coal down you lose miners. Miners lose money and they can’t get out and shop. So it affects other businesses — it affects your community.”

West Virginia’s Secretary of State Natalie Tenant tried to ameliorate the tension by saying there was no need for division. “There is no reason to pit clean air against good-paying jobs,” she explained. “West Virginia can lead the country in developing coal technology that supports both.”

And despite the growing pains of transitioning into a new economy, Kathy Dahlkemper, the county executive for Erie County, Pennsylvania, assured those at the hearing that the alternative would be much worse. “It’s those who are marginalized that will feel the full brunt of climate change,” she said. “The price of food likely will increase, and the poor are almost always the hardest hit when we have harsh, weather-related disasters.”

The Cost of Coal

Thus far the EPA has heard from about 1,600 people across the state and received about 300,000 comments on its proposed regulation. At the public hearings, each individual was allotted five minutes to speak. Stanley Sturgill, a former coal miner, told the EPA that it hadn’t gone far enough.

“The rule does not do nearly enough to protect the health of the front-line communities,” he said. “We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”

Sturgill suffers from black lung as well as other respiratory ailments.

Among those who urged the EPA to go even further with its regulations was Reverend Richard Czik. Seven years ago, the reverend’s son was diagnosed with severe asthma. “On one occasion, before we really understood what was happening, he woke up in the morning unable to breathe,” he said. “It’s the kind of frightening experience a parent never forgets.”

As ThinkProgress reports, Czik was part of the Environmental Working Group’s “Human Toxome Project,” in which they tested him for 84 industrial compounds, pollutants and chemicals. His body was found to contain traces of mercury, lead, pesticides and 39 other pollutants.

“The EPA’s first-ever carbon rule for regulating existing power plants,” the reverend testified, “is absolutely essential to reduce the effects of climate change that worsen smog and trigger asthma attacks and other health consequences.”

If enacted, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan would eliminate 25 percent of the soot and smog emitted by power plants by the year 2030. It could prevent over 6,000 premature deaths and at least 140,000 asthma attacks in children.

Some worry that, even if passed, the EPA regulation would simply force natural gas plants to pick up the slack. Natural gas is mainly methane, a greenhouse gas that does not linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon but whose ability to absorb heat is 86 times greater. Dr. Poune Saberi, a physician at the Hospital University of Pennsylvania, testified that this transition will only work if the transition is into truly renewable energies.

“Instead of switching from coal to natural gas or to nuclear, if states switch from coal to non-combustible sources to renewable sources, they will actually get there faster and it’s better for climate change and it’s better for the air,” he said. “It’s almost like a win, win, win, but somehow that gets lost in the discussion.”

During the anger of the Pennsylvania rallies, much seems to be lost in the discussion. A lone activist standing between environmentalists and the union members put it best. On Charles McCollester’s homemade sign were the words: “As long as blue union/jobs are pitted against green earth/health we are doomed!”

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