The recent explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in my home county of Raleigh, which killed 29 West Virginians and injured 2 others, has brought West Virginia statewide sorrow and worldwide attention.
Reflecting on President John F. Kennedy’s death, Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom.”
As we seek to understand how and why the Upper Big Branch disaster occurred, we might also re-examine conventional wisdom about the future of the coal industry in our state.
Americans depend mightily on our coal to meet their energy needs. Coal is the major source of electricity in 32 states, and produces roughly half of all the electricity consumed in the United States.
As West Virginians, our birthright is coal. The ancient fossil is abundant here, and is as emblematic of our heritage and cultural identity as the black bear, the cardinal, and the rhododendron.
Indeed, the coal severance tax codifies the philosophy that the coal belongs to all West Virginians, and that they deserve meaningful compensation for its extraction. This philosophy has also been embraced nationwide, through the Black Lung Excise Tax, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fee, and several other existing and proposed programs that provide additional compensation to the people and places that produce our coal, oil, gas, and other energy resources.
Coal brings much needed jobs and revenue to our economy. But the industry has a larger footprint, including inherent responsibilities that must be acknowledged by the industry.
First and foremost, the coal industry must respect the miner and his family. A single miner’s life is certainly worth the expense and effort required to enhance safety. West Virginia has some of the highest quality coal in the world, and mining it should be considered a privilege, not a right. Any company that establishes a pattern of negligence resulting in injuries and death should be replaced by a company that conducts business more responsibly. No doubt many energy companies are keen for a chance to produce West Virginia coal.
The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.
The sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected. The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities. Our coal mining communities do not have to be marked by a lack of economic diversity and development that can potentially squelch the voice of the people. People living in coal communities deserve to have a free hand in managing their own local affairs and public policies without undue political pressure to submit to the desires of industry.
We have coal companies in West Virginia which go out of their way to operate safely and with minimal impact on our environment. Those companies should be commended and rewarded.
But the coal industry has an immensely powerful lobby in Washington and in Charleston. For nearly a hundred years they have come to our presidents, our members of Congress, our legislators, our mayors, and our county commissioners to demand their priorities. It is only right that the people of West Virginia speak up and make the coal industry understand what is expected of it in return.
The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.