It shouldn't go unnoticed that today, while the tragic aftermath of the mine collapse in Utah continues to unfold, the Bush Administration is unveiling new regulations making it easier for companies to remove mountaintops and strip mine for coal in America's heartland. The industry is claims that such coal is safe and green. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the coal industry, like an 80s celebrity desperate for a realty TV show comeback, is trying to reinvent its image as the nation wakes up to the fact that pollution is passÃƒ© and conservation is the next big thing. Thus, introducing "clean coal". Which is to dirty coal what New Coke was to old Coke. Which is to say, not different at all. And that's the point.
If that wasn't obvious just on the basis of cynicism --- that the coal industry would do everything it could to seem green in terms of the environment in order to continue to make green in terms of cold, hard cash --- the events of recent weeks should alert us to the reality that big corporations often locate their best interests in their own pockets, not the lives and health of people.
The classic example is the Ford Pinto. In the 1970s, the Ford Motor Company learned that when the Pinto was hit from behind, there was a very good chance the gas tank would explode in a deadly fireball. Ford calculated that repairing each engine would cost $11. But they figured not every car would get in an accident and catch fire and, for those that did, not every wrongful death lawsuit would proceed. They calculated that paying out the successful lawsuits would cost less than repairing all the cars. So they kept the defect quiet. In all, 27 people died in Pinto fires.
When the owners of the Crandall Canyon mine in Huntington, Utah, proposed to resume operations in other sections of the mine as soon as possible while the community was still grieving less than a few days after the mining deaths, even federal regulators confessed they were "shocked that the subject was even brought up." But in an industry that makes its money by placing workers in extremely dangerous conditions, decimating our land and polluting our air, are we that surprised that they would put profits first and people last?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, mining companies have found a "safer" way to extract coal from the earth. They blast off the tops of mountains in Appalachia, literally removing entire tops of mountain ranges to scrape at the coal that lies beneath. The leftovers are then dumped. The New York Times reported that a spokesman from the National Mining Association plainly stated that "unless mine owners were allowed to dump mine waste in streams and valleys it would be impossible to operate in mountainous regions like West Virginia that hold some of the richest low-sulfur coal seams." Naturally, the Bush Administration is easing federal regulations today to make that pollution easier. So then the coal companies can generate more pollution in order to get more coal that they can put in their coal plants and generate more pollution.
Meanwhile, throughout communities in Appalachia --- some of the poorest rural communities in the United States --- coal dust settles like a blanket everywhere. Researchers have proven that children living in these regions have abnormally high rates of asthma, diarrhea and vomiting. For instance, in the town of Rock Creek, West Virginia, the elementary school lies just 200 feet away from a 165-foot storage silo containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic mining waste. In 1972, not too far from Rock Creek, a similar structure collapsed entirely, killing 125 people.
Coal isn't about electricity. Native American reservations in North and South Dakota alone have enough wind capacity to meet one-third of America's energy needs. Wind, solar and other technologies we have today are viable alternative sources of electricity, and conservation efforts could dramatically reduce our electricity demand in the first place. But to the coal industry, alternative energy is the real disaster. So the coal industry will do anything it can to procure coal as quickly and cheaply as possible, slapping a fresh coat of green paint on top to try and distract us from the harm caused to mine workers, Appalachian children and air that all of us need to breathe.
The trail of blood coal streaks bright red across the globe --- from Appalachia to Hungtingon, Utah, to Xintai, China, to Sago, West Virginia. We must reduce our consumption of electricity overall. And to meet our remaining energy needs, we must prioritize sources of energy such as wind and solar that don't place lives in danger. Coal is a dying industry, withering even faster than the planet and the communities it has infected. To relax mining standards at a time when the whole world is reeling from the tragedies of mining is a move that the Bush administration should be ashamed of and all of us should vigorously oppose.
Sally Kohn is the director of the Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots community-led organizations across the United States to identify our shared, long-term vision for the future.