CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In recent weeks, I have watched incredulously as the presidential candidates pander to the coal industry in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, each attempting to outdo the other as a more ardent "friend of coal." I'm disturbed by the ads and the speeches because while each candidate talks plenty about the coal industry, neither spends any time talking about concerns for coal miners and their health and safety.
Neither candidate speaks of the mining tragedies that have led to loss of life. Neither mentions that black lung disease has doubled in the past decade. This torturous, deadly disease is caused by exposure to coal dust and is now even being detected in younger miners. Neither presidential candidate talks about the recent efforts by House Republicans to block federal regulation that would protect workers from combustible dust explosions and limit miners' exposure to coal dust.
These are crucial issues for the people that live in coal mining communities. Instead of addressing these issues, the presidential candidates choose to argue about who will fight harder for coal industry profits, thanks to the coal industry's lobbying efforts to promote the idea of a "war on coal."
It's maddening to me that the coal industry lobby has become so monstrous that concerns about coal miner health and safety are drowned out in a race for profits. Politicians and coal CEOs rail against mine safety legislation yet call themselves "friends of coal," and have free access to spreading their message in the media, with paid advertisements and billboards, and on the floor of Congress. Few mention the role that natural gas plays in reducing demand for coal. Often times, the voices of the coal miners are drowned out.
In an effort to defeat the provisions of the Clean Air Act, Big Coal has given nearly $39 million to sympathetic U.S. lawmakers since 1990, according to OpenSecrets.org. Bob Murray, owner of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where nine miners were killed in 2007, even hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Mitt Romney that was attended by West Virginia's First District congressman. The industry lobby has no trouble whispering in the ear of a friendly politician, but the coal miners who work for the industry can't afford the price.
If anyone is under attack, it's not the coal industry, or the coal company executives. It's the coal miners. Despite the passage of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, miners are still suffering and dying from black lung disease at staggering rates. According to NPR, 70,000 coal miners have died from black lung since 1970, and another 60,000 are receiving benefits.
Meanwhile, it's been more than two years since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, and we've yet to see comprehensive mine safety legislation pass. The Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act aims to prevent future disasters, but has yet to come up for a vote in Congress.
I'm tired of politicians arguing about who is more "pro-coal." I'm sick of company executives asking elected officials to prove they are "friends of coal." I'd rather know if an elected official is a friend of coal miners.
As proud West Virginians who revere our state and coal miners, we can't remain silent on this issue any longer. This may not be a "war" against miners in the traditional sense of the word, but West Virginia coal miners are under attack by a system that places profits before people, and a Congress that's been bought by corporate special interests. I won't sell my soul to any money-hungry industry. I'll fight for much-needed protections for coal miners who put their lives on the line every day. Coal miners deserve a voice in Congress.
Thorn, of Wheeling, is the Democratic nominee for West Virginia's First District Congressional seat.