WEB EXTRA: Conversation on coal, mining practices, starting in coal states

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Written by James Maddox

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

After having the premiere of her documentary “Coal Country” canceled from the LaBelle Theater in Charleston, West Virginia, Director Mari-Lynn Evans of Akron, Ohio said her definition of success was to simply have her film shown at all in that city.

“So yes, it was successful,” Evans said. “I never expected to have the premiere canceled two days before it was scheduled, never expected to have my block of 20 rooms canceled at the hotel, either. It was very tense.”

The establishments that chose to cancel their ties to Evans’ film did so for fear that violent protests would erupt. But when the film was finally permitted to be shown at the West Virginia Cultural Center in Charleston on July 11, crowds who attended the event were civil, and Evans’ production about the effects of mountaintop removal and the coal industry in general was shown before a full house.

“Other than some heckling, it went amazingly smooth. Even with those hecklers in the audience, with the ones that I saw, it was actually other miners telling them to straighten up,” Evans said.

The issue of coal mining and coal mining methods is one of the most tender topics that can be brought up today in Appalachia, and because of this, when arguments against the industry are brought up the conversation is often heavily one-sided, causing a struggle for opposing views to be made clear.

In light of recent environmental and economic developments, however, there is a  likelihood that more open conversations on the topic will be necessary in years ahead.
In June, the 196-page “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” report authored by the United States Global Change Research Program was released to the public, stating that all regions of the U.S. can expect major climactic hardships in the near and far future if current energy practices continue unimpeded.

Even with threats of negative climate change bearing down on the country, changing an operation as large as coal production and combustion would be a long and arduous venture, especially when you take into account the Energy Information Administration finding that Ohio, a coal importing state, produced 222,576 tons of coal in 2007.

Still, because of urgent calls for action in the matter of alternative energy and greenhouse gas emission reductions, many feel a dialogue must be started on decisive energy discussions, and already some examples of a shift toward a dialogue are beginning to appear.

“You know it is happening, and it’s very interesting how it’s happening,” said Paul Ryder of Ohio Citizen Action. Ryder focuses on the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal (MTR).

The leading proponent for MTR has been Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), said Ryder, but lately, developments show promise in the area of openness to other views on the subject.

On June 16, Sen. Byrd issued a statement that told of a three-day “fact-finding mission” that members of his Charleston and Washington staff would embark on, talking with representatives from the coal industry, the environmental community, and local concerned citizens on the issue of MTR, as well as visiting existing MTR operations first hand.
“These staffers… are also expected to evaluate the on-going flood recovery efforts and discuss concerns expressed to my office about the impact of mountain-top mining and the severity of damage from the recent floods,” said Sen. Byrd.

While personally unable to participate in the tour, Sen. Byrd instructed his staff members to be his eyes and ears on the ground and report their finings and the results of their discussions in an effort to obtain the most up-to-date information on the issue of MTR.
“I’m not predicting what [Byrd’s findings] are going to be, but the situation is quite unusual,” said Ryder. “That’s showing a degree of openness to the issue that hasn’t been shown before.”

Another instance of the industry conversing with differing views of their practices comes from the film “Coal Country,” as the documentary gives both the sides of the MTR issue through environmentalists such as Judy Bonds and through coal industry workers such as Randall Maggard with the Environmental Compliance Department of Argus Energy — though Evans admits that finding Maggard was quite a challenge.

“It took us two years to find anyone from the coal industry willing to speak on camera,” said Evans. “But Randy has put a human face on this issue for the coal industry. Both he and Bonds want jobs, and they both want to help the environment. They have everything in common.”

On a larger scale, the political ring is also taking the first steps toward addressing the coal’s environmental issues by passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which endeavors to create clean energy jobs and practices and a cap and trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, though the votes that narrowly passed the House bill were not unanimous.

One of 44 Democrats joining with House Republicans to vote against the act, Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-OH) released this statement: “While we ramp up the production capacities of new energy technologies, like wind and solar power, we will have to continue to rely on existing resources like coal to seamlessly complete the transition. I do believe that coal will continue to have a place in our future energy portfolio, though there will likely be a heavier reliance on clean coal technologies.”

With this acknowledgement of the change that is likely to come, Wilson has also stated that he hopes to continue dialogues with the many Ohio companies that depend on coal.

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