Would Saving Streams Kill Jobs?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sen. Patsy Ticer's bill, SB 564 seems like simple common sense. Ticer's bill, which is currently being debated in Richmond, would "[prohibit] the issuing of a permit for coal surface mining operations unless the applicant affirmatively demonstrates, and the Director finds in writing, that no spoil, refuse, silt, slurry, tailings, or other waste materials from coal surface mining and reclamation operations will be disposed of in any intermittent, perennial, or ephemeral stream." Now, you might ask, who would be against a bill that prohibits dumping dirty coal waste in streams sounds? Well, think again.
Delegate James “Will” Morefield, R-North Tazewell, spoke at the hearing in defense of the coal industry. He said he recognized the importance of protecting the environment but added that the economy and jobs are critical, too.

“We’ve got to realize that this is a jobs bill,” Morefield said. “And this has the potential to kill jobs in Southwest Virginia.”

Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, was even more urgent.

“This would bring economic devastation – absolute and total devastation – to this corner of the commonwealth,” Wampler said.
Wait, is that true? Would prohibiting the dumping of coal waste into streams "kill jobs" and "bring economic devastation" to Southwest Virginia? There are a few problems with this argument.

First, it's important to realize realize that, even without "stream saver" laws, coal mining employment in the United States has plummeted over the past century, from 725,030 workers in 1910 to just 82,595 workers in 2006 -- a decrease of more than 90%. At the same time, the amount of coal produced in the United States has more than doubled, from 501 million tons to 1.2 billion tons. The reason this took place, of course, is that the coal industry became less labor intensive and more capital intensive (e.g., more reliance on mountaintop removal and other forms of mining that employ few workers). To put it simply: fewer workers, more machines (and explosives) to get the coal out.

Second, it's important to put things in perspective here in Virginia. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of 2008 there were 4,797 coal workers in the Commonwealth (3,364 of whom worked in underground mines and 1,433 in "surface" mines). These 4,797 jobs made up 0.15% of Virginia's total "private nonfarm employment" (3,196,914) in 2007. To put it another way, in 2008, 99.85% of Virginia workers were not employed in the coal industry. However much money it makes for the coal companies, coal mining is simply not a labor-intensive industry providing many jobs -- to "kill" or otherwise.

Third, as Appalachian Voices points out:
Despite claims that mountaintop removal increases local tax revenues, counties that produce coal are devastated by poverty, school closings, and unemployment. McDowell County has produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia, and for many years in the nation, yet the median household income is $19,931 and 37.7% of residents live in poverty. In 2000, the Appalachian Regional Commission classified more than three quarters of Appalachian Coal counties as “economically distressed.”

Worse even than the loss of jobs, however, is the manner in which mountaintop removal destroys the potential for alternative economic growth...
To put it another way, let's hear from Jim Webb, from his book "Born Fighting":
The people from the outside showed up [in Appalachian coal country] with complicated contracts...asking for "rights" to mineral deposits they could not see, and soon they were treated to a sundering of their own earth as the mining companies ripped apart their way of life, so that after a time the only option was to go down into the hole and bring the Man his coal, or starve. The Man got his coal, and the profits it brought when he shipped it out. They got their wages, black lung, and the desecration of their land...Coal made this part of Appalachia a poverty-stricken basket case while the rest of the mountain region remained mired in isolation.
That's not some environmentalist "tree hugger" or "urban liberal" talking, that's Jim Webb, whose family roots go back generations in Southwest Virginia, explaining that coal mining turned the region into "a poverty-stricken basket case." I encourage everyone to visit the coal-mining areas of southwestern Virginia and see what decades of coal mining have accomplished in terms of economic development, health care, social services, education, etc. After you've checked that out, then please tell us all about how putting a stop to the most ruinous practices of this dirty, destructive, job-killing industry (such as dumping massive amounts of coal waste in streams) will make things worse than they already have.