This is especially ironic since representatives from the coal lobby say they're worried about stronger environmental rules and want a "level playing field" for the industry. Yes, coal is facing hard times, but that's mostly due to cheap natural gas. Regardless of what the EPA does, coal production is projected to continue falling in Southern West Virginia.
A true "level playing field" would recognize the many benefits we get from coal -- the high-paying jobs, economic benefits and electricity -- along with the damage it causes, whether it's mine worker deaths and injuries, dirtier air, fouled water or scarred mountaintops.
The Legislature is holding hearings on the spill, and the Senate passed a bill to strengthen inspections of surface chemical storage facilities. Never again, they say. But politicians surely said "never again" after the Buffalo Creek disaster killed 125 people in 1972 and after the Tennessee coal ash spill in 2008. And what about the countless smaller spills and accidents we so rarely hear about?
Let's get real. This is not the last coal-related disaster West Virginia will suffer. But sadly, we're still talking about Band-Aids at a time when we need real accountability.
We won't get accountability from Freedom Industries. They declared bankruptcy to avoid being held responsible for the damage. The real solution has to be a broader effort to hold all our industries as a whole accountable for their actions.
We can be proud of our coal heritage and hold the coal industry accountable, too. What we need are more leaders who understand both the costs and benefits of having so much of our economy tied to the coal industry. Current state policies require the industry to pay for just some of the damage it causes, including black lung health-care costs and road deterioration from trucking. One consulting firm even calculates that the state pays more to fix damage from the industry than it collects in revenue.
More importantly, we must plan for a future in which we don't rely so heavily on a single industry. Many other states have established permanent mineral trust funds based on revenue from fossil fuel extraction. That money can be used to spur economic development in other sectors of the economy. It's long past time for West Virginia to do the same. With the proposed Future Fund, the Legislature will have a chance to do exactly that, helping ensure a bright future once the coal and natural gas run out.
I say it's time to stop letting the coal lobby bully us into thinking the industry we've helped them build is all we've got. We have great assets here, in addition to our natural resources -- our mountains, top-notch rail transport, advanced manufacturing facilities, new renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass, and most of all, an unbeatable work ethic.
We deserve blue water. And we deserve full accountability from our biggest industry. More than that, we deserve real leadership that values our health and our way of life more than insulating the coal industry from the consequences of its latest disaster.
Richardson is a senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.