As part of her 2016 primary campaign, Hillary Clinton visited West Virginia to listen to the concerns and complaints of coal workers who have lost, or fear to lose, their jobs because of shrinking demand for coal. The usual villains, according to Republicans, are subsidies to domestic renewable energy companies, increased competition from lower cost producers overseas, and most notably, new clean power regulations from the EPA, better known to Donald Trump as the "D.E.P." (Department of Environment, whatever that is). Before the EPA even formulated the new rules prominent Republicans from traditional coal producing States have been attacking President Obama's so-called "War on Coal." They waged this "war" despite increasing evidence that mining, transporting, burning, and disposing of coal and coal ash is probably the most polluting industry in the world and the biggest contributor to global warming and climate change. Besides the obvious pollution that coal by-products like sulfur contribute to air pollution and acid rain, coal ash is also radioactive (1). Coal production has also been linked to increases in mercury pollution downstream to fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, and contributing to the increase of autism in children (2).
Ironically, many coal workers understand the dilemma, despite Hillary Clinton's loss to Bernie Sanders in the West Virginia primary. Still, the Democratic primary indicates a change in the wind for many, if not all, coal industry workers. They know they are facing a crossroads. The big question for workers, who have long understood the risks of cave-ins and black lung, and many of whom accept that climate change is real and their industry contributes mightily to it (3), is what kind of jobs they can land, using the skills they already know, once King Coal is dead and gone?
Ms. Clinton's approach to the concerns of workers is currently the only viable one and the only one that indicates any effort to address it. The Republicans want to put the coal industry on life support forever and Bernie Sanders would like to kill it overnight in favor of renewable energy. The Republicans' solution merely perpetuates the problem at taxpayer expense and the Sanders' prescription, while desirable and inevitable in the medium and long term, does nothing to put unemployed workers back to work now. Yet Clinton has drawn the most criticism for her approach. The political and psychological reasons for this mass rejection are fascinating to consider but there is one thing that seems paramount: it simply isn't big enough. And this, I think, is why Ms. Clinton had such a hard time in West Virginia, despite her many good ideas of retraining, business development and education (4).
Historically, Americans are about big challenges, big ideas, and big risk. We don't just want to solve a problem; we want to bury it for good and all. We wanted to win our independence from a great European power and we did. We wanted to save our country from disunion and free the slaves in the bargain, and we did. We wanted to walk on the Moon before anyone else and we did. We want, despite our many mistakes and backsliding, to make progress for the whole world. What we really want, as FDR put it at the beginning of WWII, is to "...win through to absolute victory."
Since 1977 coal companies have been required to comply with the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund (5) by paying fees that are turned around to communities and States to clean up old mines. The funds have financed health needs of former workers and residents near mines, provided money to invest in reclaiming damaged land to its former state, and provided seed money for commercial, agricultural or other developments. Unfortunately, while about $8 billion has been spent in reclaiming the lands, at least $4 billion more must be invested to meet the obligations of the law. Clinton proposes unlocking resources available to meet these needs and attract private investment in the reclaimed lands. The difficulty is that the need far outweighs whatever resources have or can presently be allocated and these funds do not necessarily guarantee that former employees of the coal companies will or can be hired to lend their skills to such reclamation.
It's always a temptation to throw more money at a problem and hope it can be solved that way. In this case, however, it seems in comparing the costs of reclamation against the public health costs associated with clean up of polluted waterways, reducing air pollution, the spiraling costs of natural disasters related to climate change and a burgeoning increase of autism associated with mercury exposure, the costs of doubling, tripling or any other multiple pales in comparison to the costs we now bear in cleaning up after the coal companies. The exteranal environmental and public health costs of cleaning up after the coal industry has been estimated at $330 to $500 billion annually (6) (7).
Conversely, investing in land reclamation and shutting down coal mining in favor of renewable energy is smart for a number of reasons:
- The faster the cleanup is underway, the less damage will result from residual effects of abandoned mines, dangerous coal ash levees - always in danger of bursting and polluting waterways - and increasing the increasing health costs of ignoring diseases in their infancy.
- The workforce is available to undertake a massive cleanup of mines and levees. This labor force has an inherent stake in restoring the land to its former beauty because they live on it or near it. It's part of their collective experience and, very often, part of their familial heritage.
- A big infusion of money can also save and transform the coal industry from an extraction industry to a restoration industry, providing a path of growth and purpose to employees, investors and the public for a more socially conscious and profitable industry.
The end of the coal industry doesn't have to mean the end of job opportunities for workers in that industry. It also doesn't have to mean the end of energy generation for millions of homes and businesses. What it can mean are new opportunities in both without damage to public health or steep environmental clean up costs. In short, the death of King Coal provides an excellent opportunity to transform an industry that has caused so much damage to one that can accelerate a return of healthy living areas for people and the land and lay the foundation for economic growth in the years ahead.