Not King Coal
By John Byrne Barry
In seven years of publishing The Planet, we haven't talked much about coal.
But the coal industry was one of the first in line at the White House with its wish list, and in early March, President Bush reneged on his campaign promise to curb carbon dioxide pollution, the primary gas causing global warming.
Coal-burning power plants are some of the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide pollution. The coal industry contributed $114,000 to Bush's presidential campaign and more than $6 million overall in the 2000 election.
But the problem isn't just that burning coal contributes to climate change and more "traditional" pollution like acid rain and urban smog. Extracting coal from the ground is a dirty enterprise as well. Unfortunately, there are no charismatic species like the caribou that are threatened by it - just, well, poor people.
In central Appalachia, Sierra Club volunteers are working with communities that have suffered from a century of environmental devastation wrought by coal mining - polluted streams, abandoned ponds of toxic chemicals and more. (See "Visions of Appalachia," Pages 4 and 5.) But many of these communities depend heavily on the coal industry for employment and revenues, so they will also suffer when, sooner or later, our nation weans itself from the dirtiest of fossil fuels.
The Club is engaged in a "listening project" to learn how best to help these communities. We have to overcome the very reasonable skepticism toward a large national organization coming in to "help." Especially because we'd like to see less reliance on coal.
Without coal and coal-mining jobs, many Appalachian communities would become ghost towns. The working conditions may be dangerous and environmental consequences severe, but the coal miners earn relatively high wages, and have health care and pensions. Any just transition has to include steps to diversify local economies and training and employment services for displaced workers.
Representatives from the Club have been meeting with the United Mine Workers, but there are big obstacles to reaching an agreement.
With the dinosaurs in the Bush administration looking backward to the fossil fuel age for their energy strategy, the transition isn't going to happen overnight. But the day is coming, and when it does, the Sierra Club will hopefully be in a good position to help.
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