AFTER THREE days of touring mountaintop removal mines, we were in the bus driving down Cannelton Hollow back toward Charleston. The bus was full of environmental activists, interested citizens, industry representatives and the Division of Environmental Protection officials who hosted the tour.
Ahead of us, a loaded coal truck lumbered, gears grinding and engine sputtering.
As I thought about what I had seen over those three days, I was suddenly able to put words to a vague feeling that had gnawed at me for the five years I've lived here:
The coal industry offends the hell out of me.
Before anybody storms The Charleston Gazette, let me explain more fully. I am offended in part on behalf of miners and thousands of others who make their living from coal.
I am offended by an industry that had to be forced by federal law to provide a workplace that is even remotely safe. Even now, the industry sabotages efforts to control coal dust. Coal dust causes black lung. In sufficient concentrations, it causes mine explosions.
Before the Mine Safety and Health Act passed in 1969, hundreds of miners lost their lives every year. The industry accepted that as a cost of business. Actually it was a savings. Safety measures cost money - more money than industry bean counters thought the lives of miners were worth. Since 1969, miners have died at one-fifth the rate they did before the mandated reforms and inspections.
This is an industry that had to be forced by federal law to limit ravages to the environment. Before the Clean Water Act passed, acid mine drainage killed creeks all over the state. Such drainage still causes problems. Before the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act passed, strip miners left scarred and pitted mountains in their wake, without even a nod toward reclamation.
The state is still trying to clean up many of these sites. Yet the industry has the gall to complain about being over-regulated.
This is an industry that used its undue influence on state politicians to get $80 million a year in "super tax credits" for supposedly creating jobs - while the number of miners drops ever lower. Industry associations defend huge companies that used fly-by-night contractors to escape hundreds of millions of dollars in Workers' Compensation debts and union pension obligations.
This is an industry that forces coal truck drivers who want to make a decent living to illegally overload their trucks, making mincemeat out of state roads and endangering other travelers.
This is an industry that hauls $100 million of coal a year through Cabin Creek, while poor children play in raw sewage.
Finally, this is an industry that rips the top off mountains and dumps the "spoil" in valleys, burying miles of streams and headwaters, then has the nerve to claim that the newly flattened "fish and wildlife habitat" is an improvement over mountains, forests and streams that used to provide genuine fish and wildlife habitat.