Let us start by recognizing that coal operators have a responsibility to make the jobs of their workers as safe as possible. And they have a responsibility to respect their neighbors and do all in their power to minimize any damage that may be done to the environment as a result of their operations. And they further have a responsibility to repair any damage they do cause.
Let us start by recognizing that if the operators do not fulfill those responsibilities, then someone has to make them do so, most often the federal or state government, or both. The last thing any of us in the coalfields should desire is to go back to the days when coal operators were allowed to do anything they wanted with no consequences. That's how Bill Blizzard ended up at Blair Mountain, after all.
Let us start by recognizing that the government has a critical role to play, because for too long, far too many coal operators have not respected their workers, not respected their neighbors, not cared about the damage their operations may have done and not cared to repair that damage once it was done.
Let us start by recognizing that whatever role government does play, it has a responsibility to take into account the impact of its actions on all concerned. And government has a responsibility to seek ways for coalfield residents, including miners and their communities, to benefit, not suffer, from its actions.
Let us start by recognizing that there will be changes in the way our nation and our world generate electricity over the next century. We don't yet know what form this change will take, nor how fast it will happen. We do know that there are not currently enough other sources of energy (whether other fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, biofuels or anything else) to replace the energy we create from coal to feed a growing demand in America, much less the world.
Let us start by recognizing that at some point in our future (perhaps decades from now, perhaps centuries from now (the coal will run out or will become too expensive to mine. Between now and then, it is our task to do all we can to develop ways to use coal responsibly and cleanly to power our nation and our world.
And let us start by reaffirming that all God's children have a right to prosper in a safe and livable environment (at home and on the job) where they can thrive without fear of sickness, disease or injury caused by the irresponsible actions of corporations motivated solely by profit at any cost.
I believe that, working together, we can develop an environmentally sound and economically secure way forward for those who live and work in the coalfields of central Appalachia, one that does not merely celebrate the heritage of coal but embraces its future. If we are to live by the lesson of Blair Mountain, standing together to create a better future for all our children and grandchildren, we really don't have any other choice.
Roberts is International President of the United Mine Workers of America.