Commentary: Patriot Coal and the true cost of coal

The recent agreement Appalachian Mountain Advocates reached with Patriot Coal was, as it should have been, huge news. This development proved one thing clearly: When coal companies are forced to pay the true costs of mountaintop removal mining, this destructive form of mining is no longer profitable.

All the overheated rhetoric about the so-called ?war on coal? by politicians like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, Gov. Earl Ray Tomlin and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito can?t conceal this one simple fact: Mountaintop removal mining exists only because these politicians and their hand-picked regulators have allowed coal companies to shift much of their cost of doing business onto the public.

If there is a war on coal, it was declared in 1972 when Congress passed the Clean Water Act and declared that the streams and rivers of the United States could not continue to be used as dumping grounds for industry?s pollution. The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act raised the stakes and put in place more limits on the damage coal companies could cause.

But the coal industry didn?t spend the last 40 years figuring out how to comply with these landmark environmental laws. Instead, the industry spent its time and its money trying to stop the enforcement of these laws and undermine their very foundation.

The industry has been especially effective at the state level, where compliant politicians like Govs. Manchin and Tomblin appoint pro-industry regulators who not only refuse to enforce the law, but actively work with the coal industry to thwart the attempts by citizens to force compliance with the law. The stakes were not small.

According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Patriot estimates its obligations to clean up selenium pollution as a result of actions Appalachian Mountain Advocates brought against the company represent a $440 million liability. That enormous liability, which could have ended up being borne by the people of West Virginia, was a huge part of Patriot?s decision to get out of mountaintop removal mining.

Other coal companies are creating pollution issues of similar magnitude. Rather than working to ensure the costs of these issues fall on those profiting from the mining, West Virginia?s politicians are bleating about the ?war on coal? and complaining about U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actions that fall far short of what the agency should be doing to protect the environment and the people of this state.

Time is running out to make sure that coal companies pay to clean up the messes they have created. Whether Manchin, Tomblin, Capito and others are willing to admit it, the central Appalachian surface coal mining industry is in an inevitable decline that has nothing to do with the EPA?s actions. Market forces, longstanding environmental laws and geology are working against the industry far more effectively than Washington bureaucrats.

Rather than confront these realities and plan for a future in which coal plays a far less predominant role in the economy, West Virginia politicians have chosen to cling fiercely to the past, spurred on by a relentless and well-funded propaganda campaign by the coal industry that has exploited people?s fears for their jobs and their futures.

Instead of bowing to the industry, West Virginia?s leaders should be working to make sure that mining is done responsibly, safely and in a way that won?t leave West Virginia taxpayers weighed down by the compliance costs the industry evaded.

West Virginia?s leaders should be working to pave the way for a brighter future for the state than experienced in post-boom coal counties like McDowell. But decades of simply kowtowing to industry demands has made West Virginia?s political class intellectual lazy. They are unwilling ? or unable ? to look beyond the immediate needs of this one industry to really think about the long-term needs of West Virginia as a whole.

The real discussion in West Virginia today should be about how to build a sustainable, prosperous economy that benefits all of the citizens of the state rather than enriching a select few.

If you?re not hearing that conversation, it?s time to start asking yourself why, and time to start demanding it.

Radmacher is communications director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates. A version of this commentary appeared in The Charleston Gazette.


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