Will Coal Miners Stand by Trump as Jobs Disappear?
By Oliver Milman
Art Sullivan is considered something of a political heretic by other coal miners in south-western Pennsylvania, where a wave of support for Donald Trump based upon his flamboyant promises of a resurgence in coal helped propel the Republican to the U.S. presidency.
"Many of my coal miner friends voted for him," said Sullivan, who has spent 54 years as a coal miner and, more latterly, consultant to a struggling industry. "They were deceived. Trump had no plan, no concept of how to resurrect the coal industry. My friends were lied to."
Sullivan's friends may disagree with this assessment but the coal comeback promised by Trump in the 2016 election campaign has failed to materialize, with his first term studded with bankruptcies and closures of mines and coal-fired power plants.
There are now about 5,000 fewer miners than when Trump strode into the White House. The coronavirus pandemic has turbo-charged the decline – so far this year U.S. coal production has collapsed by more than 25% compared with the same period in 2019.
It has been a bruising few years rather than the glorious new dawn promised when Trump donned a miner's helmet, mimed digging coal and excoriated Barack Obama's "war on coal" on the campaign trail four years ago. One of Trump's first executive orders removed a ban on coal mining on federal land and dumped Obama's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "Come on, fellas," said Trump at the order's signing, where he was surrounded by beaming miners. "Basically, you know what this is? You know what it says, right? You're going back to work."
Such assurances were eagerly accepted by coal mining communities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky who backed Trump and prepared for salvation. "When he came into office, it was like someone pulled their finger out of the dyke," said Thomas McLoughlin, a former mine inspector who trains new miners. "I was flooded with new mining students. It was overwhelming." McLoughlin said he would vote for the president again because Trump was the only candidate prepared to stand up for coal workers. "My business won't go under if he's re-elected," he added.
The Trump administration has set about weakening or scrapping a slew of environmental rules that bound the industry, such as requirements that new coal-fired power plants capture their carbon emissions and that coal firms do not release wastewater laced with dangerous pollutants, such as lead, selenium and arsenic, into rivers and streams.
Bob Murray, a major Trump donor and founder of the largest private coal company in the U.S., has boasted of an "action plan" he gave the administration to undo what he called "eight years of pure hell" under Obama. Much of Murray's three-and-a-half-page wishlist has been ticked off, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. A particular prize was a weakening of Obama-era standards to reduce mercury pollution from coal plants, a rollback undertaken after Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, became administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are still feeling the effects of the damage from the Obama administration," said Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The social devastation in mining communities has been breathtaking. The support for Donald Trump is as strong if not stronger than in 2016. West Virginia is a Democratic state that has been dyed deep red because of the last administration."
But while Appalachia will largely stick with Trump in 2020, more coal capacity has been retired under Trump than during Obama's second term. "Coal's not back," as Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, glumly conceded last year. "Nobody saved the coal industry."
Coal production fell so sharply last year that renewable energy such as solar and wind overtook it in electricity generation for the first time since at least 1885, the year Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, America's first skyscraper was erected in Chicago and people were burning more wood than coal. Last year also saw Murray Energy file for bankruptcy, one of half a dozen coal companies to do so that year.
Cheap, abundant gas, retrieved via fracking, and the advance of renewables have been greater causes of coal's demise than any green regulation, experts say, rendering Trump's rollbacks simply environmentally destructive.
"The fall of coal is first and foremost a market story," said Daniel Kaffine, a University of Colorado economist who has researched the issue. "The days of coal supplying the majority of U.S. electricity production are not coming back." While metallurgical coal – needed for the making of steel – will hang on, the practice of burning thermal coal for energy is in "a death spiral," Kaffine said.
There are about 45,000 coal miners left in the U.S., half the number employed during Obama's first term. Plenty of political rhetoric surrounds a workforce that is actually quite small – there are double the number of flight attendants in the U.S. than coal miners, for example, and roughly the same number of chiropractors.
Whole communities sprang up around mining, however, meaning several dependent jobs are lost for each miner put out of work. The long decline of well-paying mining jobs, through machinery automation and now creeping obsolescence, has left deep scars in Appalachian towns now blighted by unemployment and opioid addiction.
"People drank Trump's Kool-Aid and he hasn't done it for them," said Blair Zimmerman, a former coal miner who is now commissioner of Greene county, Pennsylvania. "I'm very worried about the future because without mining, our tax base would go and we couldn't survive. People are leaving the area, it's tough. We should have looked at other options a long time ago."
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has outlined a $2tn plan to generate millions of jobs in renewable energy, potentially providing a new path for threatened coal workers. But coal mining has deep roots in communities that many are unwilling to relinquish. "It's a damned joke," said Bostic, of the West Virginia Coal Association. "It's an affront to a coal miner to say: 'We will take your job away for one that pays less well, and by the way, you have to pack your family up and move.'"
According to Sullivan, coal miners feel they have little choice. "The coal miner had no friends and was desperate," he said. "No one was speaking for us and then Trump was, so people backed him. Miners see him as their guy."
The externalities of coal reach far beyond mining communities, however. As the most carbon-intensive of fuels, coal is a key driver of the climate crisis, indirectly spurring the sorts of huge wildfires that have ravaged the U.S. west coast this year, as well as the continuing deterioration of the polar ice sheets that imperil coastal cities through sea level rise and storms.
Direct air pollution from the soot and chemicals given off by burned coal is also a major health burden. Not far from Sullivan and his friends, the Cheswick power plant, close to the banks of the Allegheny River, is close enough to people's homes that nearby residents have to wipe the coal soot from their houses. Five miles downstream towards Pittsburgh, in the suburb of Verona, Laura Jacko suspects emissions from the power plant could be behind her husband's asthma and the breathing problems suffered by her son, who was born prematurely.
"There is nothing more horrifying than holding down your small baby to shove a breathing machine into them," Jacko said. "It affects me personally and I get pretty angry about it."
Environmental groups have long pushed for the closure of Cheswick, which has previously been handed a civil penalty for breaching pollution limits. In Jacko's view, the era of coal needs to come to a managed but swift end. "My uncle was a coal worker and had black lung," a disease that develops from inhaling coal dust, she said. "I don't want their jobs to kill them. I want them to transition. These jobs are going away, it's just a matter of when. Pushing ahead with coal does everyone a disservice."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Rebecca Niemiec and Kevin Crooks
Colorado voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether the state should reintroduce gray wolves (Canis lupus) after a nearly 80-year absence. Ballot Proposition 114 would require the state to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore wolves, focused in Western Colorado and initiated by the end of 2023.
Back by Popular Demand?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDUzOTQxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzI4NTkyMX0.BeRR61CH6a-TWwSw1p4kmng4x4tXRaSMKyTRHKIHmOw/img.jpg?width=980" id="1f7fe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="339e3443dc63f3be06e24a82f0b37a03" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9aec767b3325e364a8605524504f95ab"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wTx_jqpqqfU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Clashing Values<p>Proposition 114 has strong support in Colorado. <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/public-perspectives-on-wolves-and-wolf-reintroduction-8-004/" target="_blank">Statewide surveys </a> conducted by phone, by mail and online over the past two decades have found that 66% to 84% of respondents supported reintroducing wolves. This support is consistent across different regions of the state and diverse demographic groups.</p><p>In a <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank">survey of Colorado residents</a> that we conducted in 2019, the prospect that wolves could contribute to a balanced ecosystem was the most commonly cited reason for supporting reintroduction. Other arguments included people's cultural and emotional connections to wolves, and <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/moral-arguments-related-to-wolf-restoration-and-management-8-011/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">moral arguments</a> that restoring a species humans had eradicated was the right thing to do.</p><p>While overall public support is strong, over half of Colorado's 64 counties have passed <a href="https://www.drovers.com/article/wolf-reintroduction-ballot-colorado" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resolutions against restoring wolves</a>. Many ranching and hunting associations are actively campaigning against the ballot measure.</p><p>In our 2019 study, we found that media coverage in the state focused more strongly on <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">perceived negative impacts</a> associated with wolf reintroduction than on beneficial effects. Surveys show that resident concerns include threats to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-human-safety-8-003/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human safety and pets</a>; <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-livestock-8-010/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wolf attacks on livestock</a>; and the potential for wolves to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-big-game-and-hunting-8-001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce deer and elk populations</a>, threatening hunting opportunities.</p>
Who Decides?<p>This measure is the first giving voters in the U.S. an opportunity to weigh in on bringing back a native species. Addressing the issue through a ballot measure adds a unique twist to public and media discussions about wolves.</p><p>Supporters call it a democratic way to ensure that the <a href="https://www.cpr.org/2020/09/29/should-wolves-be-brought-back-to-colorado-a-rancher-and-a-biologist-have-their-say/" target="_blank">public's values are recognized</a>. They also argue that voters are deciding only whether wolves should be reintroduced, while allowing experts at the <a href="https://cpw.state.co.us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state wildlife agency</a> to create a reintroduction plan <a href="https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/election/howl-you-vote-wolf-advocates-opponents-ask-colorado/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">based on the best available science</a>.</p>
<div id="4c11f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dec8674441e02372e50b796d848e4130"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1316474105315483649" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wol… https://t.co/74LMG1PYtW</div> — High Country News (@High Country News)<a href="https://twitter.com/highcountrynews/statuses/1316474105315483649">1602706860.0</a></blockquote></div>
Finding Consensus<p>Studies suggest that ballot initiatives like 114 will <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.07.032" target="_blank">become more common</a> as public values toward wildlife change and more diverse groups seek to influence wildlife management. For us, the key question is how to recognize and incorporate these differing values as agencies make decisions.</p><p>Research drawing on insights from <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/dialogue-and-social-conflict-about-wolves-8-009/" target="_blank">psychology, political science and sociology</a> suggests that it is critical to run<a href="https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QppmBszEF6zsNnhBJ7Q2-pSWRR-Zx_ln/view" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> truly participatory processes</a> that engage government agencies and people who have a stake in the issue in shared decision-making. Fostering dialogue between groups that value wildlife differently can build empathy and mutual understanding and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.015" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster compromise</a>. Broadening the conversation in this way is essential for coexisting with carnivores with minimal impacts on predators and people.</p>
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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