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Tina Casey headshot

Triple Whammy For Last Remaining U.S. Coal Miners

By Tina Casey

U.S. President Donald Trump built his campaign around the promise to bring back coal mining jobs, but so far his rhetoric has failed to produce meaningful action on behalf of coal miners. Coal power plants are still shutting down at a rapid clip, and another major coal producer has just declared bankruptcy. Adding insult to injury, the Trump administration appears ready to put federal coal mining safety regulations out to pasture.

That's a triple whammy for an employment sector that has been bleeding jobs for generations, and the number of workers directly involved in coal extraction currently hovers below the 20,000 mark.

Coal miners and mine safety

For all the support that Trump enjoys in coal mining communities, mine safety is a deeply emotional issue that reaches back through generations of fear and heartache.

In just one historic hotspot for coal mine activity, West Virginia, more than 21,000 coal miners have died in mining accidents since 1883.

Single-death accidents prevailed in the early years of West Virginia coal production. As mining activity increased, so did the rate of disasters defined in terms of multiple deaths. In 1907 the mine safety issue reached critical mass with an explosion at two connected mines owned by the Fairmont Coal Company. The official death toll reached 361, with possibly more deaths unrecorded.

Though the number for any single disaster never reached the level of the Fairmont catastrophe, death tolls in the double and even triple digits remained common.

The most recent large-scale coal disaster occurred in 2010, when 29 coal miners were killed at a Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. In a high profile court case following the incident, the company's former CEO, Don Blankenship was alleged to have conspired to violate safety rules. Here's the rundown from Mother Jones:

The four-count indictment describes a culture of negligence under Blankenship’s watch, in which essential safety measures were ignored as the company sought to squeeze every last cent out of the ground.

Why is Trump messing with mine safety?

West Virginia is just one state. Multiply that across Appalachia and other coal regions, and the numbers add up. 1907 was the worst year in modern U.S. history, with a nationwide toll of 3,242 deaths.

Improved federal safety rules, combined with other factors like a drop in the coal labor force, bring the count down steadily. On its current mine safety page, the Department of Labor notes the pattern over recent years:

...From 2006-2010, the yearly average number of fatalities in coal mining decreased to 35. In 2009, there were 18 recorded coal mining deaths, a record low number. Sadly, coal mining fatalities dramatically increased to 48 in 2010, with the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine claiming 29 lives in addition to the 19 other coal miners killed that year. In 2011, 21 coal miners were killed in accidents. 2012 saw 19 coal miners killed in accidents.

Unfortunately, fatalities could be rising again. As of November, there were 14 deaths nationwide among coal miners compared to a record low of eight in all of 2016. At least six of those deaths occurred in West Virginia.

Coal industry stakeholders attribute the upward trend to inexperience, as an uptick in coal production this year brought miners into mines they had not previously worked. Bloomberg reports:

...They point out that almost all of the coal deaths -- including Hatfield’s -- have involved workers who’d been employed at their current mine for less than a year. Overall U.S. coal output is up 15 percent through the end of July...

Softening up coal safety regulations...or not

In June, the Department of Labor stepped up a program of sending inspectors into mines to assist with safety management, a strategy that the United Mine Workers of America has criticized for being toothless and ineffective.

Now the Trump administration appears set to reduce mine safety regulations.

The proposal is part of Trump's "two-for-one" plan for reducing the number of federal regulations. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is currently taking recommendations on which safety regulations to cut:

On February 24, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13777, entitled “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda.”  This Executive Order directs each agency to review existing regulations to assess compliance costs and reduce regulatory burden.  As part of this review, MSHA seeks stakeholders’ assistance in identifying those regulations that could be repealed, replaced, or modified without reducing miners’ safety or health.
Please send your recommendations to zzMSHA-OSRVRegulatoryReform@dol.gov.

Perhaps there are useless regulations, but maybe not. The two-for-one approach has been roundly criticized as shortsighted and oversimplified. That includes Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers, as cited by the Post:
Smith called it “crazy” that the administration had adopted an approach where for “every regulation to protect miners lives they get rid of two of them" that he says provide crucial protections to miners' lives.

If the safety regulations on the book are indeed all still important, the Trump administration risks alienating the coal miner base. In any case, it is going to be difficult to roll back those regulations -- useless or not.

According to the Post's sources, any attempt to tinker with mine safety rules will run into "strong explicit language in the Mine Act" that is likely to prevent any significant relaxation of safety standards.

Whither coal?

Coal miners appear to believe that this year's uptick in coal production signals a long term trend, and, as a result, retraining courses aimed at coal miners are undersubscribed.

That view may be overly optimistic. Coal power plants have continued to close at a rapid clip during the Trump administration, and earlier this week the ripple effect touched off the first coal company bankruptcy under Trump's presidency (the company, Armstrong Coal, produces thermal coal for power plants).

Another major coal company, Murray Energy, may be the next to declare bankruptcy as its troubles mount.

Though Trump has cited his industry-friendly approach as the driving force behind the recent increase in U.S. coal production, it appears to be too little, too late. Cheap natural gas continues to push coal out of power production, global forces and technological advances are making the pivot to renewable energy all but inevitable.

Interestingly, analysts also point to natural gas as one reason why Trump's policies have little if anything to do with coal's good fortunes under his administration:

Rather than Trump's deregulation, analysts say a recent uptick in coal production has been driven by higher exports to Asia and natural gas prices that have stopped plunging.

In consideration of the role of natural gas, it's important to note that the fall of the U.S. coal industry has occurred without any significant help from President Obama's Clean Power Plan. The plan never went into effect and has been held up in court since 2016.

Nevertheless, Trump made rescinding the Clean Power Plan a centerpiece of his presidential campaign and he is following through.

In the latest development, on Thursday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will hold a two-day hearing for public comment on Trump's proposal to rescind the Clean Power Plan, on November 28 and 29 at the West Virginia state capitol of Charleston.

The choice of location is somewhat ironic, considering the number of coal deaths this year in West Virginia. Adding to the irony is this comment from EPA chief Scott Pruitt:

“The EPA is headed to the heart of coal country to hear from those most impacted by the CPP and get their comments on the proposed Repeal Rule. The agency looks forward to hearing from all interested stakeholders.

If you'd like to add your two cents, EPA says it will be posting registration information at this link: epa.gov/stationary-sources-air-pollution/electric-utility-generating-units-repealing-clean-power-plan.

Image credit: mjtmail, Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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