Coal's Dirty Past and Dangerous Future

The economics, politics, and culture of our coal trade

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The tragic deaths of 25 coal miners in West Virginia have reverberated across the country. In the wake of the accident, many are beginning to ask about the dangers of the massive Appalachian coal mining economy. Are we too reliant on coal? Why do such dangerous conditions persist while the rest of the U.S. enjoys tough labor safety standards? There are no easy answers to these questions, which may still echo long after the disaster has faded from the front pages.

  • West Virginia Politics Could Change Forever  Politico's Ben Smith explains the "massive political implications in a state whose politics are still defined, 1920s-style, by the conflict between labor union and Democrats on one side and a single, deep-pocketed coal baron on the other." That baron, Don Blankenship, owns Massey Energy, which runs the mine where this accident took place. "Indeed, it's difficult to think of a figure like him in any other state in the current century."

  • Could This Change National Energy Policy?  Newsweek's Daniel Stone asks, "will such a fresh reminder of the dangers of coal mining influence the nation's energy debate, underscoring the imperative to move beyond coal?" Before now, "Instead of safety, the most significant considerations for an energy revolution are environmental factors. Mercury contamination and global carbon cuts are what fuels discussions at bipartisan meetings on Capitol Hill." Could safety concerns, added to environmental concerns, tip the balance? Stone doesn't think so.
  • The Corrupt Politics of Coal  The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews shakes his head. "Massey, and its leader, Don Blankenship, are almost cartoonishly villainous in the way they approach everything from the environment to union rights to media scrutiny." He says Blankenship has ousted unions, spent millions to unseat judges, and "has more or less purchased the state's government." Matthews says campaign finance reform is needed. "Reform that limits what Massey and Blankenship can spend on West Virginian campaigns would clearly make for a fairer democratic process, where public opposition to coal can actually matter."
  • Coal Unions Grew Too Weak  Slate's Jenny Rogers explains, "The real obstacle to safety reform is that miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them." But no longer. "Although mining in the United States is safer now than it was in past decades, that's the case because organized mine workers pushed hard for reforms a generation ago—reforms that are still in effect. Whether those reforms are enough is now in question."
  • The Terrible Health Dangers of Coal  Matthew Yglesias rounds up some statistics on the health affects of coal. He quotes Bill Sweet, who "estimates imply that about 10,000 people die each year from exposure to coal power plant emissions, and about 10,000 from vehicular emissions." And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "People who live in counties where lots of coal is mined are much more likely to suffer from an array of chronic, life-threatening health problems ... residents reported higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, diabetes, and lung and kidney disease."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.