Traveling south from Charleston, W.Va., through Boone County is a visual treat, a land weathered by time and fortune. You can see it on the truck-cracked roads that roll past narrow streambeds, on the little coal towns sunk into the hollers or nestled up against the mountains, abandoned coal tipple conveyers rising along the mountain peak, and on the mountains themselves.
Time had certainly worked over Big Mountain before Patriot Coal Co. shut down its coalmine there earlier this year. When I visited in 2011, it was down to Big Mountain #16, and miners were busy working the remaining veins. At the time, Patriot seemed determined to work it until the coal was exhausted, producing nearly 2 million tons of coal from Big Mountain that year.
That was fine with the miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America. In fact, management and labor were in the process of putting aside years of bitter fighting to talk about cooperation, safety and prosperity. The supervisor at Big Mountain #16, Dave Belcher, was a former rank-and-file union miner who allowed that he liked and respected the local union president, John Alderson, and Alderson said the feeling was mutual.
Alderson wasn’t always so easy to get along with. Before he lost a few steps working the mines, “Big John” Alderson was a heavyweight boxer who was able to go a few rounds with “Iron Mike” Tyson, the eventual heavyweight champion. Alderson was game:
When I met him in 2011, Alderson certainly commanded the respect of the miners, as a relatively new local union president. And he also had Belcher’s respect. “I can always go to Dave Belcher and work out any problems,” Alderson said. “He takes a lot of pride in the work we do in the mines up here.”
That open communication between management and labor didn’t necessarily guarantee safe and profitable operations – the mine was cited for failure to report safety violations in May of that year and had consistent safety problems because of the bad roof conditions endemic to the Appalachian geology, and Patriot shut it down in February 2012, citing reduced demand for coal. The company declared for bankruptcy five months later.
Alderson, Belcher and the rest of the Big Mountain crew were transferred to Patriot’s Black Oak mine, up the road toward Charleston, as the company consolidates as it works through restructuring. Big Mountain could be opened again, but there are no promises.
“If we don’t work together we’re in trouble, because everybody is against coal,” says Carl Egnor, the local union president at Black Oak. “If we work together we can prove them wrong and all these young miners will have an opportunity to make a good living for their families.”
As Egnor suggests, miners in West Virginia and other states in the coalfields believe that coal will continue to fuel the economic engine of their communities. That was clearly the consensus I found in conversations with miners and operators not only at Big Mountain and Black Oak, but also at Shoemaker and Blacksburg, in northern West Virginia.
But the bankruptcy filing by Patriot may herald a steep downward slope for the industry – or a further erosion of our reliance on fossil fuels in general. Even the most dubious of the climate change doubters are coming around to the realization that extreme weather patterns, such as Hurricane Sandy this year, are the result of global warming trends that are increasingly influenced by human activity.
Still, the rise in “clean” natural gas production give us new turns at fossil fuel production, and there are a few jobs in those pipelines. Some power producers, including FirstEnergy Corp, American Electric Power and Duke Energy, are shutting down many of their coal-fired plants in response to stricter environmental rules, switching to natural gas.
While natural gas may be emerging as a replacement for coal in power generation, it is not without environmental risk. Many experts believe that we are headed into a period of “mix-and-match” energy generation, as coal continues to give way to natural gas, as well as additional nuclear production while such renewable clean energy technologies as solar, wind, wave and geothermal are developed.
What becomes of mining communities as coal becomes less and less attractive as an energy source? In November, Patriot announced that it has agreed to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining, which may be good news for Appalachian communities fighting environmental degradation but which will pose new challenges for their economies. Patriot didn’t suddenly get environmental religion, of course. It was facing a costly suit from environmentalists, plus the company wouldn’t mind shedding two of the stronger local unions in the coalfields.
“Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it’s technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said. “Companies have always made strategic decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here.”
For Roberts and his union, Patriot’s withdrawal from strip mining could mean fewer coal mining jobs in the long run, but also more difficulty in ensuring that Patriot lives up to its obligations. Since declaring bankruptcy in July, Patriot is trying to jettison its responsibilities for health care and pensions for miners and their families, including retirees and widows. The UMWA is fighting for the miners in bankruptcy court in St. Louis.
The union is also fighting the real villain here, Peabody Coal Co., the original guarantor of worker benefits that offloaded those jobs and the benefit obligations onto Patriot, a subsidiary it created just for the purpose of shedding the liabilities. The UMWA has filed suit against Peabody claiming violation of the Employment Retirement and Income Security Act, which prohibits defrauding workers out of earned benefits. That case is being heard in Charleston.
Peabody’s double-breasted scam on workers, using shell companies like Patriot to offload pension obligations, then using the bankruptcy courts to cash in while dumping workers, is a scenario playing out in a lot of industries, including the airlines. But Big Coal has managed to set some record low standards.
In 2004 Horizon Energy dumped more than 5,000 miners and their families, unloading the company through bankruptcy to Massey Energy, operator of the Upper Big Branch mine that collapsed and one of the most disreputable employers in the coalfields. The Patriot fiasco is the latest in a long line of treachery by the nation’s coal barons.
A lot of families in the coalfields are depending on the UMWA to once again carry the day against Big Coal, in the courts of law and in the courts of public opinion. But they will also have to contend with the changing dynamics that makes coal less important to the nation than it has been throughout our history.
When you think about how much coal has played a role in the culture and arts of the communities of Appalachia, it’s not too far-fetched to think that one day they’ll be gathering in school auditoriums and community theaters to celebrate Coal: The Musical. Don’t laugh! The production is already underway: