‘No Pay, We Stay.’ A Look Back At Miners’ Protest That Rocked Appalachia Tuesday, Jul 28 2020 

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It’s a quiet, foggy morning on Highway 119 in Cumberland, Kentucky. A railroad track runs along the highway, and here, Sand Hill Bottom Road crosses the tracks and turns to the right, leaving a rough triangle of gravel spattered with trash. 

You can hear crickets chirping, birds twittering, cars passing on 119. A billboard advertises Portal 31, a coal town tourist attraction. 

Protesting miners blocked the tracks in the morning fog.


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Ohio Valley Coal Companies Get Tens Of Millions In Paycheck Protection Loans Tuesday, Jul 7 2020 

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More than 50 Ohio Valley coal companies received loans totaling as much as $119 million through the Paycheck Protection Program meant to keep people employed during the pandemic’s economic downturn. 

Congress passed the PPP in March to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and out of unemployment lines. The data released by the Small Business Administration does not show specific dollar amounts for the loans, but rather categorizes loans into ranges such as $150,000 to $350,000 at the lowest end, and $5 million to $10 million at the upper end. 

Six Ohio Valley coal companies fell into that high-dollar category, including Rhino Energy, whose former CEO David Zatezelo currently heads the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. 


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Coal Towns Were Counting On Tourism For New Jobs. Then Coronavirus Hit. Monday, Jun 29 2020 

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On a recent sunny weekday, Bill Currey proudly walks among 30 neatly stacked, brightly colored plastic kayaks. Birds chirp merrily, and the soothing sounds of the meandering Coal River permeate the background — nature’s version of a white noise machine. 

For the tanned Currey, who also owns an industrial real estate company, being here, on the river, is as good as it gets. His goal is to share this slice of paradise with as many people as will listen. 


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Coal Executives Face Fines, Possible Jail Time, Over Failure to Pay Wednesday, May 27 2020 

Executives with Indiana-based coal company American Resources Corporation will face daily fines of $2,500 if they continue to flout court orders, according to filings in the bankruptcy case of Cambrian Coal. 

The order comes after ARC failed to pay electric utility bills, employee back pay and benefits, and other liabilities it purchased from Cambrian last fall, even after receiving millions of dollars from the federal government’s coronavirus relief aid.  

ARC must pay the daily fee if it fails to pay $1,067,736 in court-ordered payments by June 1. Executives would also have to appear in court to face additional sanctions, including possible incarceration. Incarceration for failure to pay is the highest sanction available to bankruptcy judges and is exceedingly rare. 

ARC received $2.7 million in loans from the federal government this April through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. The loan is forgivable if used on employee retention, so ARC would forego that loan forgiveness if it chose to spend the money on court-ordered payments.

ARC attorney Billy Shelton told the court earlier this month that the purchased mines had barely produced any coal, making it difficult to pay outstanding debts.

Coal miners employed by ARC subsidiary Quest Energy made news over the winter when they held a three-day-long railroad blockade to protest lost wages. ARC is among dozens of coal companies declaring bankruptcy amid a historic collapse of the coal industry in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic has hastened the decline in demand for coal.  

Coal And COVID-19: Lung Impairment Makes Miners Especially Vulnerable To Coronavirus Tuesday, May 5 2020 

Underground coal miners start their shifts getting changed in closely packed changing rooms. They ride rail cars to their worksite, shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes for more than an hour. And once they’re underground, ventilation designed to tamp down coal dust blows air through the mine. All that makes a coal mine the kind of place where the coronavirus could spread like wildfire. 

Coal mines have been designated essential businesses in most states in order to keep the nation’s energy supply stable. But state and federal agencies are not tracking coronavirus transmissions or regulating sanitation to keep those essential workers safe. 

“I think there’s a concern by workers in this country that this is a government that gives workers second seat when it comes to their health and safety,” said Joe Main, former Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. 

Rather than implement rule changes or increase safety inspections, MSHA has reduced some enforcement actions and issued unenforceable recommendations for coal miners and mine operators. The language is similar to that used by MSHA’s sister agency, OSHA, which regulates meat packing plants and other work sites that also present risk of transmission. The difference, though, is that coal miners are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of the high percentage of miners with lungs damaged due to exposure to toxic coal and rock dust. 

MSHA encourages workers to wash hands frequently, disinfect equipment, and maintain six feet of space between workers. Such actions can be difficult or impossible underground.

“Guidelines were a good first start, but it’s not enough in this situation,” Main said. “You have people who are totally vulnerable, and you just put out guidelines and let what happens, happen. You have to search in your tool bag and do everything you can to make sure people are protected.”

Main, who served as MSHA assistant secretary from 2009 to 2017 said there are plenty of tools at MSHA’s disposal. It could do more inspections, make sure miners know they can report unsafe conditions without fear of retribution, issue emergency standards, and make public information on which mines had had confirmed cases of the virus. 

Some Congressional members from the region, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, have also urged MSHA to issue emergency standards. A spokesperson for the Senator told the Ohio Valley ReSource, “We understand that individual coal mine operators and unions have developed their own protocols to prevent miners exposure, but [Sen.] Manchin wants to make sure they’re a uniform set of protocols.” 

MSHA did not respond to questions about why it had not made safety precautions mandatory, but a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, which houses MSHA, said, “MSHA’s primary goal, at all times, is ensuring the safety and health of American miners. The Department is actively working on many fronts to aid the American workforce during the COVID-19 response. MSHA encourages all Americans to follow state and federal guidance on safe practices.” 

Tracking Exposure

The first documented case of COVID-19 in a coal mine came from Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported at least two miners were infected with the disease in a Consol Energy mine that straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border. Realizing contact tracing among hundreds of mine workers and their family members would be unfeasible, mine operators said they would close the facility for two weeks. 

Consol voluntarily reported the cases to MSHA, the Post-Gazette reported. But MSHA said it is not currently tracking coronavirus cases in the nation’s mines. 

Neither is the West Virginia Office of Mine Health Safety and Training. In a statement, a spokesperson for the OMHST said, “The agency encourages all employees to limit exposure, and otherwise functions at full capacity with office staff working remotely. The agency can only enforce the code under which it operates. There remains nothing in code that would extend the agency’s jurisdiction to public health. As a result, it has no authority to provide guidelines or mandate procedures related to pandemic response.”

West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources also said it is not tracking coronavirus in the state’s coal mines. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources said in a statement, “While there have been no positive tests that we know of due to the coronavirus, either with miners or inspectors, we have distributed gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer to each mine safety specialist and have instructed them to observe social distancing. If during a mine inspection improper social distancing is observed, the inspector advises mine personnel on proper procedure and brings this to the attention of mine supervisors. Failure to comply after being brought to mine management could result in a violation being issued.”

Black Lung 

“The coal company you work for does not care how you feel, they one only care how much coal you put out,” miner Bobby Stevens of Smilax, Kentucky, told me over Facebook Messenger. Stevens worked underground for 11 years before being laid off in the high-profile bankruptcy of Blackjewel last summer. He took another mining job but was again laid off by Perry County Coal. “And then you even got these older guys who have lung problems and possibly black lung who are still underground working, and you would think these companies would know that those men are in great danger considering the virus attacks your respiratory system.”

Stevens is referring to the occupational disease that, after decades of declining rates, has reared back up to epidemic levels in the Appalachian coal fields. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimate one in five experienced Appalachian coal miners has some degree of black lung. 

Advanced stages of black lung disease can disable miners. That’s what happened to Arvin Hanshaw, 63, of Nicholas County, West Virginia. Hanshaw left the industry in 2012 because of his lung disease. “With my lungs in the situation they are now, I wouldn’t be able to fight the infection off.”

Before the coronavirus, Hanshaw received treatment for his black lung at a respiratory clinic in nearby Scarbro. The clinic specializes in helping disabled coal miners adapt to their new limitations and breathe as normally as possible. But the clinic closed its doors temporarily to protect its vulnerable patients. Hanshaw feels the difference. 

“It’s going to be really hard to find out actually how many people with the disease in the ICU or how many people who pass away have the underlying condition of black lung,” said Pikeville, Kentucky, radiologist and black lung researcher Dr. Brandon Crum. Crum raised the alarm about black lung rates in 2015 when he noticed rates of the illness at his clinic that were far higher than official data would suggest.

Crum has been calling all 300 of his complicated black lung patients — those with the most severe forms of the disease — to make sure they have the masks, gloves and social support they need to stay safe.

In Letcher County, Courtney Rhoades, a black lung association organizer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, has set up a phone tree to reach out to disabled miners. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who are really struggling with food, so we’ve been trying to get them set up with Meals on Wheels and things like that.” 

The pandemic hit when the coal industry was already in sharp decline.  Several companies declared bankruptcy in 2019, and according to notices about mass layoffs filed with state agencies in Kentucky and West Virginia, the coronavirus has already spurred more to close temporarily or for good. 

The industry trade group National Mining Association asked Congress and the White House in March for relief from fees that go toward health care for black lung victims and environmental cleanup on abandoned mine sites. The NMA’s requests have not yet been acknowledged.

This post has been updated to include a statement from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

W.Va.’s Longview Power Declares Bankruptcy Citing Low Energy Prices, Coronavirus Tuesday, Apr 14 2020 

A West Virginia-based coal plant operator has announced that it’s filing for bankruptcy due to weak demand for electricity. Longview Power LLC, which operates one of the newest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the U.S. hailed by the Trump administration as a model for coal’s future, announced in a Tuesday press release that it would seek to restructure its debts and ownership structure under the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process.

The company cited low power demand, driven by a mild winter, cheap natural gas prices and the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“This filing is unfortunate but necessary given the current depressed power prices, which have further dropped more recently due to the terrible COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation and dramatic effects of the pandemic on the economy,” said Longview CEO Jeff Keffer.

Longview operates a 700-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Morgantown. The plant has been championed by federal officials, including former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who visited the plant in 2017.

“This plant — and I won’t say plants like it, because there’s not a lot like it — is incredibly important to the future of this country,” Perry said, during the tour.

The company says operations will continue during the bankruptcy.

In an interview last fall, Keffer was optimistic about Longview’s ability as a younger coal plant to weather the larger sector-wide coal downturn.

“We’re able to produce electricity more efficiently than any other coal plant in our region, the PJM region,” he said. “We’re able to do it at lower costs than just about any other fossil fuel that includes gas-fired plants.”

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered large swaths of the U.S. economy, which included lowering demand for electricity.

The filing does not affect a 1,200 megawatt natural gas plant and 70 megawatt solar farm Longview proposed in 2019. The two power generators will be constructed adjacent to the coal facility and were recently approved by state regulators.

Coal Country: Can A Play About A Mine Disaster Help Bridge A National Divide?  Sunday, Apr 5 2020 

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve EarleDirected by Jessica BlankThe actors deliver their lines from a sparse stage — just a few benches around them and 29 modest lights above. For the most part they speak directly to the audience, sharing memories of the lives of husbands, sons, fathers and nephews, some of the 29 men who died on April 5, 2010, when an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.  

It’s a powerful performance, made even more so by the realization that nearly all of the actors’ dialogue is drawn directly from court transcripts and hours of interviews with about a half dozen people who lived through that tragic day and the many long days that followed.

“Coal Country,” which opened in New York’s storied Public Theater, introduced New York theater-goers to the real lives of families affected by the tragedy. 

The coronavirus pandemic forced the early closure of the play. But shortly after its opening I visited the playwrights, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, at their Brooklyn home to learn more about their approach to documentary theater. The wife-and-husband writing duo say they hope their work will help urban audiences better understand life in the real coal country, where people have long sacrificed to help build and power America’s cities.     

Joan Marcus, The Public Theater

Jessica Blank, Erik Jensen and Steve Earle in rehearsal

Blank explained that the work starts with outreach to potential subjects, a delicate job given the grief and need for privacy among family members. At first, Blank said, she wondered if she would get people to agree to talk. They were not returning her calls.

“I finally figured out after a couple of weeks of this, I said, ‘You know, I think that this is a community where you have to show your face.’” She said. “Just getting a phone message from some person in New York being like, Hey, I’m doing a project, do you want to talk to us? That isn’t going to do the trick.”

So in April, 2016, she traveled to a Charleston, West Virginia, courthouse. She sat with family members of victims as Massey Energy’s CEO Don Blankenship was sentenced for conspiracy to violate mine safety rules.

“And then I think what happened is that word got around that we were okay,” she said. “Because then we started sitting down with more and more folks.”

Blank and Jensen recorded hours of interviews during extended visits with people who had worked in the Upper Big Branch Mine and who had lost family members there. Despite being long-time New Yorkers they found an instant bond with the West Virginia families they met.

“I’m from the rural Midwest, and, you know, grew up in a small town,” Jensen said. “And so like, I immediately related to people kind of on that level.”

“Every experience we had sitting with every person we sat down with was incredibly powerful and incredibly eye opening and incredibly moving,” Blank said. She recounted learning details about long-wall mining — something she’d never heard of before — and the way that long traditions of union mining gave way in West Virginia over the past couple of decades. 

“And we learned a lot about humanity, as we often do, when we do this kind of project,” she said. 

Blank and Jensen have the very married couple’s habit of finishing each other’s sentences and picking up on their spouse’s thoughts. Jensen continued with the thread Blank had started. 

“My thing about it was, I learned a lot about grief.” He said that during the course of the project he lost both his father and uncle. His own grief helped him relate to what people in the West Virginia community were experiencing.  

“I think that was when I finally understood what we were writing. Because I multiply that by 29 and, my heart couldn’t take it,” he said. “I finally understood what it was like to be in that community, and it broke my heart open.

“And thank God for Steve’s music,” he added. “Because his songs address grief in such a beautiful way.” 

Greek Chorus Of One

“Steve” is singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who sat in on some of the interviews and wrote songs which he performs to accompany the play. “Steve, to me, is the heir to Woody Guthrie,” Jensen said. “He tells real stories with his songs, you know, stories of the heart.”

“Coal Country” is not a musical. The characters rarely sing and the songs do not propel the narrative, as in a musical. Rather, Earle sits on stage with a guitar or banjo and listens intently to the actors, then adds a song that might echo a characters’ loss or hint at deeper themes. Jensen described his role as akin to a Greek chorus of one.  

“He’s there to kind of hold down the play and to orient us when we need it, or to, to break our hearts when we need that.”

In a reworking of the traditional ballad of John Henry, for example, Earle weaves in allusions to the decline of union representation among miners.

The Union come and tried to make a stand

West Virginia miners voted union to a man

You wouldn’t know it now but that was then

The Union come and tried to make a stand

Joan Marcus, The Public Theater

Steve Earle performs during “Coal Country.”

And in the lovely, simple “The Mountain” (a song he first recorded with the Del McCoury Band in 1999) Earle sums up the conflicted feelings of people who are both tied to the natural world and to an industry that wreaks great natural destruction.  

I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home

She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe

Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone

But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home

Earle is pulling together several of the songs from “Coal Country” into a new album, “Ghosts of West Virginia,” which is scheduled for release in May.

Bridging Divides

I grew up in West Virginia, and my family roots there go back several generations. As with many West Virginia natives, I greet any outsider’s depiction of the place and its people with a degree of wariness. We’ve been burned more than a few times by hurtful stereotypes, even by those who meant well.  

That is perhaps why I was surprised at my very emotional response to “Coal Country.”

[At the time I saw it, the coronavirus threat was just beginning to emerge in public awareness to the degree that I knew not to touch my face. Reader, it is hard to avoid touching your face while weeping.]

It is, of course, deeply emotional content to begin with. This is, after all, the story of one of the worst mining tragedies in recent history. But beyond that I was struck by, and grateful for, the simple details about West Virginians that Blank and Jensen recognized and relayed to their New York audience.  

Their commitment to deep listening brought some deep truths to the stage. 

“I think it’s our job in making this kind of work,” Blank said. “Find the people who lived that story, sit down with them, and then get out of the way.”

Joan Marcus, The Public Theater

The cast in rehearsal for “Coal Country.”

It occurred to me, watching their play in an audience mostly made up of New Yorkers, that this is an opportunity to perhaps help overcome, in some small way, the great divide between urban and rural America. 

“Well I certainly hope,” Blank started. “It would be a privilege,” Jensen finished.

“This is a really big blind spot in communities that I move in, where people are so conscious about their politics,” Blank continued. “The things that people say sometimes about the rural working class — otherwise, really thoughtful people — are shocking to me. And I think it’s a really big blind spot that mostly comes from not having any contact with folks who come from a really different place and a really different lifestyle.”

“People have dignity, people have history,” Jensen said. “And whether you’re pro-coal or against coal, coal miners helped build this country, and they should be treated as such.” 

“Built these buildings here,” Blank interjected, gesturing at the street scene outside the window.

“And right now what they’re doing is they’re blocking trains with their bodies in order to get their benefits or in order to get their last paycheck,” Jensen said. “And I just think workers should be treated better than that.”

Former Blackjewel Miners Reflect On Changes In Coal Country Saturday, Mar 28 2020 

67641296_2512779942105859_7105525295284748288_nOn a blistering August afternoon in Cumberland, Kentucky, David Pratt Jr. stood in the middle of a two-lane highway, holding a sign that read “COAL MINERS AND TRUCKERS AGAINST CORPORATE AMERICA.” A few yards away, his father, David Pratt Sr., who is graying but still muscular, leaned back in a lawn chair perched precariously on the crossties of a railroad. His eyes focused on the spot where the tracks disappeared around the bend and more than $1 million worth of coal idled in train cars. 

Since Junior was a boy, the two have job-hopped or taken pay cuts to work side by side underground. Junior tried to make sure his dad didn’t work too hard; Senior often challenged him, saying he was just as capable as the younger men. Now, they were together again, 20 days into a protest of their former employer, Blackjewel — once the nation’s sixth largest coal producer. In July, the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,700 coal miners, and clawed paychecks from their bank accounts.

The miners said they wouldn’t leave until they were given the money they were owed. About 400 in Kentucky couldn’t pay their bills. Utilities cut off services. Banks repossessed cars. Families moved to find other work. Junior had to leave often to care for his kids, but Senior and his wife, Wanda, stayed on the tracks until the bitter end — 59 days after the blockade began. 

Soon after they dispersed, the media, the public, and the lawmakers all moved on. A court battle between Blackjewel and the U.S. Department of Labor won the miners their pay, and the train chugged out of Cumberland, another chapter of Appalachia’s long labor rights history closed. I reported on the protest for months, and it felt like an unsatisfying ending: Miners still without work, mine land still degraded and abandoned, coal executives still multimillionaires. 

But the Pratts told me it was a turning point.

I met with them, along with their families, on a rainy February night at the Gordon Volunteer Fire Department in Letcher County, Kentucky. We huddled close on plastic folding chairs. Once in a while, a car came around the steep switchbacks crossing Pine Mountain, its headlights strobing through the windows of the dim and cavernous meeting hall like a coal miner’s headlamp. 

The Pratts’ lives have changed drastically. David Sr. is on the road for weeks at a time, driving for a trucking company, and David Jr. and his wife work at the local community college while getting their nursing degrees, earning $7.25 an hour. With the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary closure of the school, however, their lives have once more been thrown into chaos. Wanda and Wendy are currently staying home, while Junior has taken the navigator’s seat beside his dad. 

Despite the economic hardships, neither man is angry. Senior said the Blackjewel protest “proved to the younger generation that there’s things that can be done,” and he rejects the notion that he lost anything. “All it done was open another door up,” he said. 

As we talked late into the evening, Senior gazed proudly at his son. “People don’t like it, but this is the biggest blessing that ever happened to us, to my family. It stopped him,” he said. “That’s it. He’s the last of the Pratts going into the coal mines. His son will probably never go in. And to me, that’s worth every penny.”

Growing Up Coal

David Pratt Sr. was born in 1962 in a coal camp in Vicco, Kentucky, to a long line of coal miners who spent most of their lives underground. He started mining at age 17, making $11.75 an hour — about $42 an hour today. “Big money,” Senior told me, eyes wide. “And money was hard to come by.” He liked the work: It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop or a rat scamper a mile away. If you turned off your headlamp, it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And he liked the camaraderie. “You’d help your worst enemy in a coal mine,” he said. 

The first time Junior went to work with his dad, he was only eight. “I instantly fell in love with it,” he said. “The environment, the people.” As he rode the rail car like a roller coaster, he decided he’d be a coal miner, just like his dad and his papaw. 

69698629_10157900405537345_2960431471489187840_oSydney Boles

David Pratt. Jr. and Wendy Pratt have transitioned to nursing careers since the Blackjewel bankruptcy.

While Junior was in high school, his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma and given three months to live. Senior said his itch to get back underground kept him alive. On his trips to chemotherapy, he drove past an exhaust fan where treated air escaped a mine. “It’s just like [when] you go home and you smell your mama’s house,” he said. The same company gave him his job back in 2007, after six years away as he fought the disease. “It felt good that they had enough respect for me to do that for me,” he said. 

Senior wanted his son to get an education, but Junior dropped out of community college and got a job underground for $17 an hour instead. Senior was was hot with anger, but he said deep down, he knew it would happen. “Coal mining is bred into you,” he told me.

From the time the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company laid tracks across eastern Kentucky in 1911, the region’s economy was tied to the fortunes of the black rock and the whims of the coal barons who controlled it. Companies built coal towns, like the one Senior was raised in, and used a scrip economy — money they created that could only be used at their stores — to keep workers beholden to them. Throughout the century, miners unionized to win shorter workdays, higher pay, and safer working conditions, but they faced threats and violence from the government and coal companies.

By the time Junior got underground, the industry was changing. A glut of cheap natural gas and federal subsidies for renewable energy in the last decade made coal a less desirable source of energy, and mechanization in the mining industry meant companies needed fewer employees. Miners have told me they would regularly go into each shift prepared to be laid off by the end of it.  

New safety regulations and procedures were increasingly at odds with the practices of Senior’s generation — they took care of things themselves. So if his men said there was a problem, Senior fixed it himself, instead of alerting authorities. When bosses started recommending the men wear bulky respirators to protect them from black lung, he declined to do so. He couldn’t spit tobacco through a respirator. 

Wavering Trust

Black lung disease, or coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, takes root when tiny particles of coal and rock dust get lodged in the networks of lung tissue, restricting the flow of oxygen. The disease can be fatal; there is no cure. People who suffer from it have told me it is like drowning on dry land. 

A 2018 investigation by NPR found that rates of the most severe forms of black lung disease are far more prevalent than experts previously believed. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report one in five experienced central Appalachian coal miners has some stage of black lung. Miners working as roof bolters — installing supports in the rock that keep mines from caving in — are the most likely to get sick

Both Junior and Senior worked as roof bolters for most of their careers. Senior doesn’t want to say if he has black lung, and Junior is worried that eventually, he may see the effects of his work in the coal mines. He thinks he got out in enough time — unlike the majority of his family. 

“My papaw had it,” he said, looking at his father.

Senior jumped in: “His daddy.”

“My uncles,” Junior said. “I think my papaws on both sides had it.” 

“Yep, we lost James on account of that,” Senior said. 

Junior finished for him. “About every male in our family that worked in the mine had it.”

Senior isn’t angry or sad when he talks about the disease, and doesn’t place blame on the coal companies or regulators, despite the fact that the companies and regulators clearly hold some of the blame. “Nobody held a gun to my head. I understood the consequences.” He told me he had a choice to go into mining: He could have been a logger, or worked in a restaurant “flipping burgers,” or gone to college and moved away. 

His son, who is 30 now, sees things a little differently. Coal mining is the most accessible way to make a living wage, even if the industry is unstable (Junior skittered between nine different companies in the 10 years he worked underground). Unemployment is higher in many eastern Kentucky counties than in the rest of the country. Recently, industrial parks and renewable energy projects have been pitched as solutions, but many have not yet materialized: Funding hasn’t come through, strip-mined land is unsuitable for building, or market dynamics changed. It’s hard for residents to place any faith in sustainable economic development ideas. 

The Pratts’ trust in coal companies has wavered, too. In the winter of 2018-2019, both were working for Blackjewel in a mine near Cumberland. It was -6 degrees outside, but with the airflow, it felt closer to -12. Water leaked in the entryway, and spray that went up liquid clattered to the ground as ice. Junior got wet trying to fix the leak. He remembers coughing, struggling to breathe, and then nothing. His men found him lying face-down in the entryway, and he was taken out in an ambulance. Senior was a mile down the road at an extension of the same mine. “They didn’t even call me,” he said. It felt like a slap in the face. “They didn’t care. They had no respect.”

Courtesy of the Pratt family

David Pratt Sr. walks with a grandchild.

In Our Blood

Junior and Senior spend more time with their families now that they have new careers. Senior makes about half what he did working for Blackjewel, but he’s above ground to see the sun rise for the first time in 40 years. 

Most mornings, at least until the coronavirus hit, Junior and his wife, Wendy, dropped off their children at her parents’ house and headed to Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, less than a mile from the site of the months-long protest. They worked minimum wage jobs scanning documents in the art department while they waited to find out if they got into nursing school. When the school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple found themselves once more out of a job. 

The number of people employed in coal mining in Appalachia has dropped most years since the 1980s. Many families leave in search of other work, and some, like Senior, have become truck drivers. Junior’s decision to go into nursing makes him an outlier, but he is not alone in seeking further education. Many former miners enter job training programs — some of which have questionable results or lead workers to jobs that are likely to vanish due to offshoring or automation. 

Courtesy of the Pratt family

David Pratt, Jr., front right, was a leader in the summer, 2019 coal train blockade.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy was just one of eight major coal company bankruptcies last year, despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to prop up the struggling industry. Both of the Pratts voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and plan to do so in 2020; they’re still worried about the ripple effects of coal’s decline in Appalachia. “This economy around here is solely based off of mining,” Junior said. “I mean, as bad as I hate to say that, it is.”

Both men repeatedly told me coal mining was in their blood, but they were glad to be leaving it behind. I asked how they could hold both of those things simultaneously.

Senior gestured behind him. His granddaughters, baby Willow and 6-year-old Arieunna, were dozing on their mother’s and grandmother’s laps. 

Cadien, who is 8, practiced his baseball swing with a stick he’d found in the fireplace. Cadien would probably never be a coal miner, Senior said. 

“That right over there justifies everything. That’s what this whole mess has done. There’s going to be something better for him.”

 

 

This story was published in collaboration with Southerly, an independent, nonprofit media organization that covers ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. 

UMWA Wants More Coronavirus Protection For Coal Miners Thursday, Mar 26 2020 

The United Mine Workers of America is asking federal regulators to set uniform, enforceable guidelines to help protect coal miners from contracting COVID-19.

In a letter dated Tuesday, March 24, UMWA President Cecil Roberts wrote to the Mine Safety and Health Administration requesting the agency issue a “safeguard” or “emergency standard” that would require coal mine operators to take actions to protect miners from the coronavirus.

Union officials are requesting operators obtain N-95 respirators, set procedures for disinfecting equipment between shifts, provide extra personal protective equipment and create disinfectant strategies for bathhouses and other communal gathering places.

“While these are certainly difficult times for all workers, it is especially challenging for workers who are unable to work from home and have valid concerns about their health and safety and that of their loved ones,” Roberts said in the letter. “Our miners work in close proximity to one another from the time they arrive at the mine site. They get dressed, travel down the elevator together, ride in the same man trip, work in confined spaces, breathe the same air, operate the same equipment, and use the same shower facilities.”

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said while some mines are voluntarily taking precautions to protect workers, the efforts are not uniform across the industry. He said many coal miners suffer from impaired lung function due to exposure to coal and silica dust and may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus. In addition, he said many mines and miners are located in rural communities, which have less access to medical care and have faced high levels of hospital closures over the past decade.

“There’s no consistency out there,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Even among the same companies [and] mines operated by the same companies. There’s certainly no consistency with mines where we do not represent the workers.”

If MSHA issues an “emergency standard” requiring mine operators to implement coronavirus precautionary measures,  mine inspectors could issue citations if operators are found out of compliance.

A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Clean Water Wanted: Contaminated Wells And The Legacy Of Fossil Fuel Extraction Monday, Mar 2 2020 

faucet-drawnon

“You seen that one with the tombstone up there?” seven-year-old Timothy Easterling asks, looking toward the grass just uphill from his home. “That’s my papaw.” 

Timothy’s grandfather Chet Blankenship died in 2016, at age 69. Blankenship lived on land he and his family have long owned at the end of a road atop Bradshaw Mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia. His hand-painted tombstone sits in the grassy patch above the family homes.

Blankenship’s daughter Melissa Easterling now lives in the house next door with her husband, Chauncy Easterling, who grew up on a nearby ridge. They live together with their son Timothy, and usually one or two foster children.

Chet Blankenship died from kidney failure soon after his family started noticing odd colors and smells in their well water. After he died, they got their water tested, and learned that arsenic was among the contaminants that had seeped into their well. The National Institutes of Health links high arsenic exposure to a range of kidney diseases.   

The family can’t prove that the arsenic in the water caused Blankenship’s death, and they can’t get firm answers about the contamination in their well and the mining and drilling activity that surrounds their property. But Timothy’s memories of his grandfather reflect the family’s anxiety about the water they depend on.

“One time Chet used it and then he got so sick he just gave up and died, didn’t he?” he asked his mother.

Melissa gently corrected him. “Honey, he didn’t give up. It just — he had to go.”

Timothy thought for a moment, then quietly chimed back in, “He used to be my papaw.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterling family, Chauncy, Melissa and Timothy, in their living room.

The Easterlings live in the central Appalachian coalfields and much of the land has been mined for miles in every direction. Water runs through the collapsed network of former mines, which may house industrial waste, as well as byproducts from the gas wells that tapped into the methane associated with coal seams. 

There are many possible sources of contamination but the family doesn’t know which company might be to blame, or how to hold one accountable to fix the problem, or at least pay for them to get connected to a clean water system. State environmental officials deny there is any evidence connecting the bad water to the mining or drilling nearby. Adding to the family’s frustration, they’ve been asking for a connection to the nearby public water system for years, only to hear that there’s not enough money.

For decades, public water systems in the US have been consistently underfunded, affecting both water access and water quality. EPA records show that in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia alone, there have been more than 130,000 violations reported in the last twenty years. At least 2,000 systems have tested positive for contaminants since 2012. Those statistics only cover people connected to public water systems. 

Nationwide, another thirteen million people draw from private wells, and two million people don’t have a reliable source of running water. In areas affected by extraction industry, such as McDowell County, many wells and springs that rural residents are used to relying on are now running dry or showing unsafe levels of contaminants like arsenic and lead. 

Struggling for Water 

When their water issues started, Chauncy and Melissa contacted the county health department to get their water tested. On seeing the family’s dark brown water, the department referred the family to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for more advanced testing. The family also had testing done by Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that has been drawing attention to people living with contaminated water. Those tests revealed unsafe levels of arsenic and lead, among other contaminants. 

Chauncy and Melissa, together with Willie Dodson of Appalachian Voices, also tested water sources within a few miles of their house. They say they’re yet to find a water source that they trust. The most alarming reading came at a gas well that was drilled into a shallow section of a giant underground mine. It sits right beside the creek that’s below the Easterlings’ home. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

Residents tried to cap an abandoned well with stones.

That sample showed levels of lead and arsenic even higher than what had shown up in the Easterlings’ well water, along with other contaminants. 

Just downstream from that sample site, water from the mine had broken out of the hillside and was flowing into the creek with an oily sheen that left the creek a dingy shade of orange. 

More rounds of testing followed, including by scientists from Virginia Tech. The Easterlings say one official told them he suspected coal slurry, a toxic waste product from coal preparation, was the main contaminant, but never gave them any formal documents or test results. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

The Easterlings knew there were problems when the water ran brown.

Official comment and documents from the DEP say that there was “no indication that the well was impacted … by mining activity,” because both of the neighboring mines on record were deeper than the bottom of the well. The Easterlings believe that mines and gas wells exist far beyond what’s shown on the records. 

The family can sometimes gather enough water from rainfall, using a system Chauncy put together to collect runoff from their roof into a cistern. When there’s a dry spell, Chauncy hauls water, towing a 250 gallon tank behind his pickup truck. Filling and hauling the tank costs the family around $200, and the water is only good for washing and flushing toilets, not for drinking.  Since Chauncy works full time, they’ll sometimes have to wait for a weekend before he can fetch water. In the meantime, they have to make do without bathing and doing laundry. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterlings with the water collection system they built.

Some of their neighbors, particularly those who are elderly and on fixed incomes, aren’t able to install a rain collection system or haul water. That leaves many of those already in the hardest situations with no alternative to using contaminated water from their wells and springs. 

Linda McKinney runs the main food pantry that serves McDowell County. She says that all of the families served are drinking water from unsafe sources. She also sees kidney and liver issues far too often among those families. 

The pantry provides bottled drinking water along with food, but they’re not able to fully meet the families’ needs. The food pantry recently received a donation of hydro-panels, which use solar energy to condense water moisture from the air. McKinney hopes that will help narrow the gap between what her team is able to provide and the need for clean water among the families they serve. 

Widespread Issue

I’ve reported on water issues since 2016, mainly in the central Appalachian coalfields. The most glaring water problem I covered was in Martin County, Kentucky, where residents complained about possible exposure to health risks due to extremely leaky pipes and a lack of communication around water outages. 

Martin County’s many-layered water problems started to get national attention and significant outside funding. But the $5 million now heading for Martin County is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $600 million in water infrastructure needs that exist just in Appalachian Kentucky, according to a study from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. That includes $28 million for Letcher County, where I live, and where a third of the residents have no option for connecting to a public water system, according to the same study. 

The federal government estimates that $472 billion in water investments are needed across the country in the next twenty years. If you break that down to one year, it’s a bit over $23 billion. 

In recent history, the most the federal government has allocated toward water system infrastructure was $7.7 billion in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Every other year since at least 1995, the amount has been less than $3 billion, even though the government’s own assessments have always shown an average annual need of at least $12 billion.

In reporting on Martin County I spoke repeatedly with Nina McCoy, a retired science teacher who, together with her husband Mickey, has played a prominent role in water testing and advocating for local water protection since at least 2000. That’s when a coal slurry impoundment broke through an underground mine shaft and sent a flood of sludge roaring down multiple creeks in Martin County, poisoning miles of streams.

McCoy says that in recent years, she’s seen a shift in local thinking and national awareness. She recalls that when neighbors without water in Martin County first saw TV coverage of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, “It was like, oh my gosh, there are other people who have water problems.” 

McCoy now believes that any real solution will have to come from solidarity among communities whose water has been impacted. “We all need to get together on this, because this is a problem nationwide.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Nina and Mickey McCoy outside their restaurant in Inez, KY.

The kinds and causes of America’s drinking water crises are widely varied, but extractive industry is a common thread. On a reporting trip to a coal mining region of the Navajo Nation, near Black Mesa, Arizona, I learned that while rain has long been scarce in the area, there used to be reliable sources of groundwater. Windmill-powered water wells dot the landscape, but many of them have run dry. Since coal mines opened on Black Mesa and started using large amounts of water to pump coal to a power plant, many wells and springs have run dry. 

The mines and power plant recently closed, but it will still take years for the groundwater to recharge. In the meantime, rural residents have to pay to haul water from a well in town that taps into a deeper layer of groundwater. That water can be used for crops and livestock but not for human consumption. Drinking water has to be bought or brought in from elsewhere. 

Nicole Horseherder is a resident of Black Mesa and founder of the community organization Tó Nizhóní Ání, which translates roughly to “clean water speaks.” She has seen the springs on her land dry up, making it harder and more expensive to keep livestock. Her fears though are mainly for the future.  

“What’s going to be here in 20 years?” she asked. “If it’s not going to be here and it’s a life-giving element, there’s going to be no life here.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Residents of Black Mesa, AZ, wait to fill water tanks.

Watershed Moments

Many residents in affected communities feel there’s a special injustice to situations like these, where clean water hadn’t been a problem until extractive industries took a toll. 

Melissa Easterling said that growing up in McDowell County, good water was plentiful. High tables of clear groundwater flowed from abundant springs and streams. Her family and neighbors didn’t need to worry about water infrastructure. She suspects that as the used-up mines were allowed to flood, the water table sank. And now, she fears, the residue of coal and gas extraction seems to have left the water contaminated. 

The Easterlings live at the end of Emerald Ridge. Looking south, the next ridgeline marks the state line with Virginia. To the north, down below, is a wooded valley carved by Panther Creek. The creek flows on into Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, which marks the state line with Kentucky.

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The wooded hills along Panther Creek.

The area surrounding Panther Creek was long known as Panther State Forest and is now a wildlife management area meant for hunting and fishing. Chauncy says it was once an extremely popular fishing spot, but he and other locals have long stopped going there because of contamination fears.

Staff at Panther WMA say that water wells in the park are tested regularly, and haven’t shown any excessive levels of contaminants. They still stock the creek for fishing, and grow gardens to attract deer for hunters. The park still feels wild and healthy, though you’re likely to come across more gas wells and pipelines than other visitors.

Looking downstream from where dirty mine water flows into the creek, Chauncy lamented what’s been lost. “We used to drink the water out of that creek. Now you can’t do it. It’s contaminated.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling watches murky water seep into a stream feeding into Panther Creek.

He worries for the future. “God knows our children’s children won’t be able to swim in that creek or play in that creek or fish in that creek.” 

Water System Woes

The McDowell County water system has a line that runs up Bradshaw Mountain, and it reaches some of the families whose wells have dried up or been contaminated, but it stops a mile short of the Easterlings’ home. The family has been trying to get connected for eight years, but there’s still no money for the project, which would take years more to complete even once funding is found. 

Much of the water infrastructure in McDowell County was installed by coal companies for their workers when the industry was booming. But coal production has been declining in McDowell County since the 1940’s. Many water systems were abandoned as the mines closed, and were then neglected for decades. 

A county-wide public service district was created to take over the systems with the intention to maintain, update, and expand them. The problem is, there hasn’t been enough money. Federal funding, once provided through grants, was largely converted to loans. The McDowell PSD now has $34,000 in monthly debt payments and can’t afford to take more loans, according to General Manager Mavis Brewster. 

“You don’t want to keep raising rates,” Brewster said. “A lot of the residents in McDowell County are elderly, they’re on fixed incomes, and water’s a basic need. You have to have that.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mavis Brewster, General Manager of the McDowell County Public Service District.

Brewster said the PSD has some momentum toward expanding water services in the county. They’ve cobbled together what they can from state and federal agencies, but there’s nowhere near enough funding to meet their needs.  

Top priorities for construction this spring are for the towns of Keystone and Coalwood.

In Keystone, the risk of bacterial contamination is high enough that since 2012 residents have been under a continual advisory to boil their water for safety. Coalwood, where the PSD is located, is slated to be the first area covered by a new sewage treatment system. Three towns in McDowell County — Welch, War, and Bradshaw — have their own sewage treatment systems, but none of the 3,300 customers served by McDowell PSD have sewer service. 

Brewster says some of the communities have pipes that collect sewage but then send it straight into the nearest river or creek. That’s been the situation in Coalwood, but even that system has deteriorated further since the coal company that built it pulled out and stopped maintaining it. The collection network has issues with clogging and backing up, flooding homes with sewage. 

Neighbors in Need

Chauncy and Melissa have been asking questions of old timers among their neighbors, with special interest in ones who’d worked in the mine below their water table. Among them, Chauncy recounted, were at least a couple who have since died, and who said they never would have worked in that mine if they’d known it could poison their own water. 

One neighbor whose water contains high levels of lead and arsenic is suing a coal company, and also fighting to get any damages covered by her homeowners insurance. She’s shared photos of severe rashes and chemical burns that she claims came from exposure to the water. 

Chauncy and Melissa say they wish they knew who they could sue, but there are too many companies involved in the mines and gas wells around them to know who to hold accountable, especially since many of the operations have complicated corporate histories. 

Outside Owners

Chauncy Easterling says it’s his understanding that most of the people who own the local coal and gas operations live in distant cities. “Chicago, New York, places like that,” he explains. “I’d like to see them come in here and clean it up. I’d say they ain’t even rich enough to fix what damage has already been done.”

He said those same companies often own the land that many many of his neighbors rent, which is one reason that many are afraid to speak out. People are worried that they’ll get evicted or have their property condemned. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Gas infrastructure is common in Panther Wildlife Management Area.

These concerns about absentee land ownership are woven into the roots of many of the region’s problems.

In 1979, teams of academics, community organizations, and local individuals across Appalachia worked together to conduct a land ownership study. Large landowners were assessed in eighty counties across six states. The study revealed high proportions of absentee corporate owners, often paying low tax rates on their holdings.

In McDowell County, for example, more than three-quarters of the land and more than 90% of the mineral rights were held by absentee owners at the time. The five largest owners included a range of timber and mining companies, all based in other states. 

A new land study is currently in development, and organizers are seeking funding to do an updated survey of land and mineral ownership in Appalachia. 

Based on what records are available, it seems the overall picture has stayed the same. Outside companies own large amounts of Appalachia’s land and resources. The business model is extractive not just in taking fossil fuels out of the ground, but also in taking wealth away from the region. 

With little local control over the land, widely depleted sources of natural wealth, a range of work and environment related health issues, it’s no wonder that so many Appalachian communities are struggling to build new economies and keep themselves afloat.

Funding Prospects

President Donald J. Trump campaigned with promises of major infrastructure spending, and the White House has frequently touted “Infrastructure Week” initiatives. But so far those have not resulted in major new projects or funding. The topic has since faded from prominence among the president’s talking points. 

Prominent Democrats have called for a “Green New Deal” to include massive infrastructure spending, including on water systems. The Green New Deal bill introduced by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year would “guarantee universal access to clean water,” but some fellow Democrats question the bill’s costs and the legislation faces stiff Republican opposition.

More immediately, coalfield communities have been focused on getting funding from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund, which is supported by a fee on coal companies and used to fix damages caused before enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Regulation Act. 

A bipartisan proposal known as the RECLAIM Act would speed the rate of spending that AML money and expand the scope of funding to include projects like water infrastructure that can help communities and their economies. A few pilot projects following a similar model have been included in recent federal budgets. 

What’s Underground

The Easterlings say they’ve never sold their mineral rights, so no mining company should have had the right to mine beneath their home. But core samples drilled deep from the earth show that the coal had been mined underneath them anyway. The family somewhat expected this, having seen dishes fall out of the cabinet from shakes and jolts when, they presume, pillars were being pulled in a mineshaft below them, allowing the cavity to collapse. Chauncy says this kind of “robbing coal” is commonplace. “It’s underground. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

The collapsed coal seams have been punctured by gas wells. No one knows what’s still in the old mine voids. From scouting around the mine entrances and talking to friends who used to work in the mines, Chauncy and Melissa have come to believe it’s likely that heavy equipment, batteries, and other industrial trash was left behind in the mine. They’re also concerned that refuse from a coal washing plant — a dark toxic sludge known as slurry — might have been pumped into the abandoned mine, which is a common practice for disposing of the waste. There’s no official record of slurry being injected in the area, but the Easterlings have heard that the mine below them was used for dumping by a nearby coal washing plant. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chet Blankenship was buried in the lawn beside his home.

There have also been dozens of gas wells drilled near this web of mines. Some older gas wells don’t show up on official maps because they were not properly permitted or have no identifiable owner. 

Some of the wells in the area are from conventional drilling but records show others used fracking, which pumps water and chemicals into the ground, opening up cracks from which gas can be drawn. 

Once a well stops producing it is supposed to be sealed. But at least some of the older wells around the Easterlings were left unplugged, with just an abandoned pipe sticking out of the ground. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling looks into an abandoned gas well.

The Easterlings say that their water started to change soon after nearby gas wells were shut down. At first the water started to smell, then little bits of dark rock dust appeared, and then before long it was running dark brown.

Chauncy worked for years as a miner and then as a boss in underground coal mines. He says it wasn’t unusual for the mine to run into an area that had already been mined even though it was outside any other mine’s permit boundary. 

Once, he said, a crew working under him cut into a gas well which hadn’t been on any of their maps. He and Melissa both remember that as a terrifying time. But shades of fear color much of Chauncy’s memories of working underground. Coal miners get paid not just to produce coal, but to regularly put themselves in danger. 

Given today’s record rates of severe black lung disease, it’s no exaggeration to say Chauncy and other miners have been getting paid to accept that their lungs will likely get scarred by coal and rock dust. 

Chauncy took a buyout offer in 2013, partly because his health and breathing had started to noticeably decline. The buyout came with six months of severance pay, which he used to get certified as a commercial truck driver. He’s applied for black lung compensation, but was told it may be five years before he’d start receiving any benefits. 

Chauncy got out of the mines, but he and his family still fear for their health. Their home is surrounded by remnants of fossil fuel extraction and the lasting legacy of environmental degradation.  

This story was made possible with funding from the Abrams Foundation, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and the Solutions Journalism Network.

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