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As coal struggles, the blame game begins

After a spate of layoffs and plant closures, the coal industry hopes the EPA will ease up on new carbon regulations

As the coal industry suffers through year after disappointing year in the U.S, there’s a growing divide in coal country over the reasons behind its current economic predicament. Some blame the federal government and its regulations. Others blame coal companies that have destroyed the environment, and then moved on to the next town.

One thing is clear: For the people who relied on coal as a job provider, the situation is dire, and getting worse every day.

“There’s been a big depopulation in the area. It’s really bad,” said Chuck Nelson, a 58-year-old resident of Glen Daniel, West Virginia, who worked in coal mines for 30 years and now campaigns to hold coal companies responsible for environmental damage. “This used to be a thriving community.”

The coal industry’s struggles picked up steam in the last month, with a spate of announcements about closing coal-fired power plants and coal mines, meaning big layoffs. 

The economic hurt caused by coal’s decline has set off a blame game in Washington and in coal country, with some saying that the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama has overstepped its bounds by instituting tough new anti-pollution measures, and others saying coal’s decline had more to do with market forces than regulation, and that it’s high time the U.S. found other ways to employ those who once depended on coal for their incomes.

Regardless of the reasons, the hurt is real.

Last week Alpha Natural Resources announced it would close its Emerald Mine in Greene County, Pennsylvania, costing the area 500 jobs. It came the same week that NRG Energy said it would eliminate 250 jobs at coal facilities across Illinois. The week prior, Alabama Power announced it would close two coal power plants in the state, affecting about 180 workers. And a day before that, Alpha said it would lay off 1,100 workers at its surface mining operations in West Virginia.The increase in coal plant closures, coupled with new federal regulations that will make burning coal potentially less profitable than ever, angered some unions and the miners they represent. Hundreds of workers took to the streets of Pittsburgh on July 29 to voice their concern for an industry that provides nearly 40 percent of the U.S. energy supply.

“Hey, hey, EPA, don't take our jobs away,” the miners chanted.

Their calls echoed the press releases of coal companies in the past few months, which have laid blame for the industry’s decline on Obama and the EPA. The agency recently announced regulations that would reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. While the regulations are not set in stone, many believe they essentially mean no new coal power plants will be built in the United States, and existing ones may be gradually phased out.

“The proposed rules are simply not workable,” said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “People are losing good paying jobs that are sustaining a lot of families.”

But even if the EPA rolled back its rules tomorrow, it’s unclear whether many of the coal industry’s jobs could be saved. The industry has long been in decline.

About 178,000 people were employed in coal mining at its peak in the mid-1980s. By 2000, 14 years before the EPA released new pollution regulations, that number had dropped to about 71,000 people.

Increased automation has had a lot to do with the decline in jobs, as has the uptick in surface mining – also known as mountaintop removal mining – which requires far fewer workers than traditional underground mining. But the U.S. has also been using less coal, with consumption dropping by 20 percent in just one year in 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“If you look at every bank from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche saying coal is a risky investment ... it’s obvious it’s an industry on the ropes,” said Kelly Mitchell, an anti-coal campaigner with Greenpeace. “Coal was in trouble long before the EPA started putting this carbon plan in action.”

If people can’t agree on the reasons for the decline, coming up with a solution for the economic pain it is causing might be even more difficult.

Some, like Dianne Bady at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, say the long, slow decline of the industry should have provided plenty of time for state and federal governments to work on creating a more diverse energy economy not so reliant on one industry.

But many, including the unions that represent coal miners, think investing in renewable sources of energy won’t stem the bleed fast enough. Jim Spellane, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said that while the union supports government investments in renewables, it not realistic to bank on renewables as a jobs program for those laid off from the coal industry.

As people argue over the causes of the decline, and possible solutions, often overlooked are the pressing needs of the communities once dominated by the industry. Struggling with both the environmental damage caused by coal, and the economic damage caused by a lack of it, residents of coal country say something needs to be done, and fast.

“The industry was a cornerstone of the economy, but it’s also created entire areas that are now sacrifice zones,” said Nelson. “We didn’t ever have to go to the major cities because we had anything we ever wanted in these small towns. But now they’re like ghost towns.”

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