Special Report

Hope Turned Into Damnation

Obama's war on coal will help him lose Virginia, a Sunday rally promised.

By 10.22.12

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GRUNDY, Va. -- More than 5,500 people turned out Sunday afternoon at a mountaintop park in remote Buchanan County to show their support for coal.

With the "War on Coal" rhetoric that's been on a lot of Republicans' lips this election season, a lineup of political speakers that included Matt Romney, son of Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, came to talk about the resource that powers both the electricity and the economy here.

"Right now our country is in dire straits," Matt Romney said, promising that his father, if elected, would make the nation energy independent by 2020. "We can't ignore the vast natural resources we have in this country: coal, natural gas, oil."

In coal country, the issue is complex. On one hand, the Appalachian coal industry has been steadily losing jobs in recent decades, due in part to mechanization and declining reserves. On the other hand, new policies implemented by the Obama administration have had a painful, immediate impact.

It was clear in the mood of the crowd Sunday. Some talked about how thousands of recent coal industry layoffs have impacted their families and communities; others said they go to work every day wondering if they will still have a job when they get there.

"The only promise Obama kept was to kill coal," said Jerry Shortt, a coal miner from Richlands who was laid off temporarily right after Labor Day -- and learned Friday that for him, along with 189 other employees at the mine where he worked, the layoff would be permanent.

"You see all these people? I bet you a quarter of them's laid off," he said. "I know a lot of people that did [vote for Obama] that are not going to next time. Hope turned into damnation."

THE WAR THAT COAL MINERS and companies perceive is one being fought on several fronts, said Barbara Altizer, executive director of the Eastern Coal Council, one of five industry-funded groups that sponsored Sunday's rally.

"They come at us on the air side. They come after us on the water side. They've stopped the permits, so that's like starving us. And EPA has started… allowing various anti-coal groups to run things into the ground."

On the air emissions side, two new sets of EPA rules have cut both the present and future use of coal.

First, new air emissions standards prompted utilities to announce the closure of dozens of coal-fired power plants, cutting the demand for coal and costing jobs. In some cases, utilities chose to convert those units to natural gas, which because of new technology for extraction has become relatively cheap and plentiful. Rules for coal-fired boilers have also affected factories and other facilities that use industrial boilers.

Second, a new proposed EPA rule would require any new coal-fired power plants to be constructed with technology to control carbon dioxide emissions -- technology that's not been fully developed. With this proposal, even state-of-the-art coal burning technology, like that being used at the new power plant that just opened in nearby Wise County, couldn't be permitted, utility officials have said.

On the water pollution side, coal mines are now subject to new restrictions in obtaining the permits needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Targeted specifically at mountaintop mines in Appalachia, according to industry supporters, the change effectively prohibits modern surface mining and has also created significant problems for deep mining.

At the same time, hundreds of mining permits have been suspended in limbo for the years of the Obama administration, with the federal agencies in charge of processing these permits choosing to simply take no action.

At mines that are presently operating, miners say federal safety inspectors have also increased their efforts, going to great lengths to find "nit-picky" violations for which they can charge thousands of dollars in fines.

And then there is the Spruce No. 1 Mine, a surface mining project in West Virginia that was permitted after a decade-long process of environmental review -- and, last year, had its permit revoked by EPA. The case, which is viewed by many as a test case for what could happen to the rest of the industry, is now working its way through the court system.

NINETY-ONE-YEAR OLD Emory Altizer, introduced as America's oldest working coal miner, told the crowd at the rally that when it comes to coal and energy, the nation is at a crossroads. "Of all the presidents and all the administrations I've ever seen, this is the first one that's declared war on coal," he said. "We have to get rid of that."

Obama won Virginia four years ago, the first Democrat to carry the state since 1964, but the latest polls indicate the Old Dominion is shifting back toward the GOP. In the past three weeks, Romney has gained 3.7 points in the Real Clear Politics average of Virginia polls -- now a 48-48 tie -- and led Obama by three points in the most recent Rasmussen survey of Virginia.

The numbers in the Senate race aren't quite as encouraging for George Allen (Democrat Tim Kaine leads by 2.2 points in the RCP average), whose wife stumped for him at Sunday's rally. But if the Republicans maintain their current momentum, it could help Allen return to the Senate.

Sunday's "Rally for American Coal Jobs" was held at Poplar Gap Park, a park with a series of playground pieces, an entertainment stage, and an open area. The park was built on a mountaintop flattened by mining, and sits close to an even larger mountaintop site where housing, roads, and a new business park are under construction. A planned airport expansion project has been stalled for years as local officials battle with federal regulators, a story that appeared recently in the Washington Times.

In Buchanan County, where the mountainous topography has long impeded development, the local government is pinning its economic development hopes on the ability to transform the landscape through mining.

"It's so steep that people can't pay [for the site work] to put a house on it," explained Arlie Collier, the mine superintendent who oversaw the Poplar Gap and Southern Gap projects. "Once it's mined, it's usable land."

Edward Finney, a coal miner from Princeton, W.Va., said the government, if anything, should be standing behind the coal industry and helping to make it better.

"A lot of people that are not from this area and don't know coal, they don't understand what all coal does for this country," said Finney, who brought his wife and children to Sunday's rally. "Look at your cities, at your skyscrapers, your automobiles. Anything that's made with steel, coal has been used to make that steel."

Will Morefield, who represents the area in the Virginia House of Delegates, called on the crowd to vote in November for leaders who will support coal. "I'm here to tell you that Yes We Can," he said. "Yes We Can correct our mistakes on Election Day."

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About the Author

Debra McCown is an award-winning journalist based in Abingdon, Virginia. She can be reached at debra (dot) mccown (at) gmail (dot) com.