As a person who has served as a college president in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, toured coal mines including one where the coal was so low I had to duck walk, and completed a college course in coal mining, I am somewhat familiar with the industry. I also have been named an honorary coal miner, and I became a Kentucky colonel via a nomination from the United Mine Workers of America.
I’ve stayed connected with many from this area and am alert to what I read about the industry in the four newspapers I read each week as well as magazines to which I subscribe.
I’ve been thinking a good bit about the deregulations in a variety of arenas since President Trump took office. As a professional in education, I’ve always been aware of regulations, mandates, and the funding required to carry them out as legislators, eager to have their names attached to bills as proof of their abilities, seem to be always looking for something to regulate.
I knew Trump was big on deregulation and made promises to voters in the nation’s coal fields, and that concerned me. Why? I have interviewed widows from the Scotia mining disaster and have read the findings when the investigators worked to assess blame: coal operators who put profits ahead of safety issues. At the site now of this disaster — and I visit it annually — a company is engaged in recovering coal through a process called mountain top removal. I have observed the rocks and sludge move down the mountains and settle in the Cumberland River, raising the river bed and making houses along the river more prone to flooding, including the two houses on the property where my grandmother moved with her four teenage children after her husband died and where my relatives still live.
One of the widows of the Scotia disaster is Geraldine King who says, “My baby girl, Victoria, was 2 years old when her daddy, Roy Edward ‘Big Sack’ McKnight was killed at Scotia on March 9, 1976. Our son, Davis, was 5 years old.
“What good are laws if no one enforces them? The coal operators take advantage of someone who’s got to make a living. Cut a corner here; cut a corner there. Make a few bucks.”
King has boxes of materials that were written about the Scotia disaster and reports, “The more I go through them, the more upset I get. It is anger. It makes me so damn mad.”
So what is the status of the coal industry in 2018? Too many regulations? Too few?
There was a surge in deaths in 2017 to 15 from a low of eight the year before. Was deregulation after Trump took office a factor?
The New York Times reported on Feb. 22, 2018, that “Federal investigators this month identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung cases ever officially recorded,” and “nearly a quarter of the miners with complicated black lung disease had been on the job fewer than 20 years.” This phenomenon strikes a personal chord with me as my father-in-law, Roy Blevins, struggled to breathe for ten years and then died from this disease.
Whether coal is competitive depends on the quality of the coal, the cost of mining, and the cost of transporting it to the buyer.
Environmental concerns have reduced the demand for coal as the numerous alternative sources of energy have moved to replace coal. The April 2018 issue of Smithsonian reports that in 2016, there were 50,000 coal industry employees, 102,500 wind-industry employees, and 260,000 solar-industry employees. The chart used in the article “Capture the Sun, Harness the Wind” shows a sharp decline in the projection of coal for the generation of electricity in 2020-2023 and then a leveling off with a slight decline. Renewable sources, on the other hand, show a sharp upward trajectory.
King says, “We’re seeing the last of coal. Our mountains are beautiful, but how much tourism does it take to support a family? Tourism alone won’t do it.”
The words “collaboration,” “cooperation,” creative problem solving,” leadership at many levels” and “government support” come into play here.
Many years ago I read Whitesburg attorney Harry Caudill’s 1963 “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.”
I refuse to accept this vision for a part of my world that is vitally important to me and to so many others. In the preface to Caudill’s book, Stewart Udall writes that the problems are the result of “a failure of men.” I concur and believe that men and women can turn things around. It will take planning, hard work, sacrifice, and political pressure applied the likes of which the area has never before seen — pressure on Frankfort and Washington.
Dr. Blevins has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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