Paula Jean Swearengin (Unofficial)
Communities That Rely On Coal Risk Fiscal Collapse
The demise of coal would do more than cause huge job losses on every rung of the industry ladder. It could also trigger widespread economic fallout in communities that have come to rely on coal.
Massive layoffs and corruption have decimated the industry. The future of coal is in question as 2020 brings on its biggest decline in 60 years. That means increasingly tenuous employment for coal workers.
Approximately 53,000 Americans are employed by the coal industry, and some 26 counties nationwide are considered "coal-reliant," according to a report published by the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University SIPA in 2019. More than 6,000 coal mining jobs were lost in March and April of this year due to a combination of lower energy consumption because offices, stores, and large buildings closed during the initial months of the COVID-19 lockdown and other market factors, like the dropping price of photovoltaic panels to use for solar power. There are more job losses and more mines closed than at any time in U.S. history since the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. Many of these job losses and closures took place in Appalachia, in towns originally built around the coal mines and/or were heavily dependent on them for survival. As the Brookings Institute summarized: "Estimates of the direct linkages between the coal industry and county budgets will almost certainly understate the risks because lost economic activity and jobs will have ripple effects across the economy." While relatively higher salaries for the region will keep some of the recently laid off miners afloat, health insurance, and future housing and living costs are a real concern. Add the pressures of navigating life in a pandemic when so many workers cannot perform their jobs remotely, and it is a recipe for economic turmoil in the region that may spread. Even West Virginia, where coal has garnered steadfast support, saw its share of industry trouble when Longview Power filed for bankruptcy in April 2020. It followed several bankrupt coal companies across the country in the last few years. All of these have caused worker uncertainty.
Corrupt coal executives are only making it harder for workers. Bribery, putting workers at risk, and taking money intended for small businesses are just some of the issues. Coal executives often hold a community's economic fate in their hands.
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Coal executives are often powerful figures, particularly in "coal-reliant" states and communities. Not only do they employ many of the residents, but may own or lease land from the local or state government, contribute to local businesses and schools, and can wield an enormous amount of political clout with mayors, governors, members of Congress, and even the president of the United States. But that great power is accompanied by the ability to abuse it. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government put forward the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This program was intended to help small businesses (with fewer than 500 employees) survive the lock down. PPP quickly went through its $350 billion fund and several family-owned businesses were left in the lurch for months without help. However, Hallador Energy, a coal company with nearly 900 employees and $575 million in annual revenue, were able to secure a $10 million PPP loan. This was in addition to being awarded millions of dollars from a federal government stimulus bill which gave out $2 trillion to large businesses during the pandemic. They were able to pull this off in part because their executives hired Scott Pruitt, who once led the Environmental Protection Agency, to lobby in Washington on their behalf and because the company’s former government relations director now works at the Energy Department. But it goes beyond that to something even worse: knowingly putting miners' lives at risk. Robert Murray, head of Murray Energy, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Donald Trump's campaign. In 2018, Murray wrote a letter to Vice President Mike Pence asking for a number of things, including environmental regulations to be rolled back and to loosen mine safety regulations. The memo even asked the Department of Labor's office on mine safety be revamped. This was all while Murray posed for pictures with the president and 10 of his miners by his side.
Poverty and health problems are common among coal workers. With increasing living and healthcare costs, workers are better off being employed in another industry. However, in coal-reliant communities, well-paying employment can be difficult to find.
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Working in coal mines, even with increased safety provisions in recent decades, has long been known to put miners' health at risk, particularly for a host of lung diseases from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to black lung disease. But injuries due to accidents are also not uncommon. "Since 1900, when the federal government first began compiling statistics on coal mining deaths, over 105,000 coal miners have been crushed, gassed, electrocuted or incinerated underground, and well over 15 times as many have been seriously injured," according to TIME. All these problems require reliable and low-cost health insurance, something many workers are losing as companies shutter or cut back as the COVID-19 pandemic lock down drags on. The federal government has a fund which disburses monthly payments to miners who have been disabled by black lung disease in particular, but as recently as March, the National Mining Association asked lawmakers to reduce payments the industry must make to the fund. This is one of many attempts over decades by politicians and the mining industry to dip into and diminish the fund. Companies like Peabody Energy are also cutting off health insurance for its retirees, which it previously guaranteed for the rest of those miners' lives. Many can rely on Medicare, but with severe lung problems and injuries from mining accidents, the costs of supplemental insurance will be incredibly high - especially for those who cannot work or anyone who lives in an area with limited opportunities, as is the case in so many "coal-reliant" communities. Couple this with mining towns being decimated by decreased demand for coal as companies cut jobs, and miners often live in poverty and rely on what low-wage work they can find. It's the result of a century's worth of land rights exploitation in places like Appalachia, keeping workers and those who once owned the land at the mercy of these multi-million-dollar companies. The end of the coal industry would mean much more than some wealthy CEOs losing their jobs. For some coal-reliant communities, the fallout could put them on the brink of financial collapse, according to one report. "Coal-reliant" can mean several things. First and foremost, the designation connotes anywhere that coal companies are a major employer. But it's also bigger than just that: "coal-reliant" communities often rely on the industry to contribute to local government in various ways. In these places, a coal company sometimes leases public lands or facilitates intergovernmental transfers. Even school districts sometimes receive coal-dependent revenue. The loss of coal could ripple out, leaving the entire fiscal system in those communities at risk of collapse.