Obama gives coal workers the shaft


The leader of the United Mine Workers of Americas, the continent’s largest coal workers union, December 21 denounced the President and the EPA on the day the agency issued its new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule.

“The final language of the Environmental Protection Agency rule requiring maximum achievable control technology for the nation’s power plants shows just how tone-deaf the Obama administration and the EPA have become when dealing with issues that will affect coal miners, their families and their communities,” said Cecil E. Roberts, the union’s president and a former West Virginia coal miner.

The union leader’s tone was a sharp contrast from his full-throated 2008 support of candidate Barack H. Obama Jr., when he said, “Obama’s election will mean a new day for American coal miners and all working families throughout our nation.”

In 2008, Roberts said campaign volunteers from the miners union were critical to Obama’s victory in the Virginia, where they focused on Northern Virginia, where the President won Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and carried the state with 52.7 percent of the vote.

On the same ballot, Democrat Mark R. Warner won his senate seat with 65 percent of the vote, so it is not as if Obama can afford to lose such key supporters.

Then, the union leader said he was confident the new president would work with the miners to improve their lives.

With this new EPA rule that no longer seems the case. 

“We have held repeated meetings in the White House and at the EPA, bringing our concerns about just how significant of an impact these rules will have on the people we represent, their families and their communities,” he said. The rule requires power plants, in particular coal-fired plants, to install expensive pollution-collecting equipment.

“But many of our suggestions for ways to make this rule more workable have simply been ignored,” he said. “I have to assume that the administration either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care what the impact on coal miners and their communities is going to be from the inflexible timetable imposed under this rule.”

Attorney Seth Jaffe, an environmental law specialist and partner at Boston’s Foley Hoag law firm, said even the EPA realizes the rule has problems.

The 1,117-page rule is not easily summarized, he said. “In fact, the rule is so complicated—and controversial—that the EPA had to generate four separate fact sheets to summarize the rule and its impact.”

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the purpose of the rule is to prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks caused by air toxics.

“By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health– and especially for the health of our children,” she said.

“With these standards that were two decades in the making, EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come,” she said.

“The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance,” she said.

Roberts, whose grandfathers were both killed in coal mine accidents, said the union support clean air and other environmental goals of the administration, but the EPA went about it the wrong way and without considering the price coal workers and others would pay.

“Studies we have done predict this rule will put more than 50,000 jobs in the utility, coal and transportation industries at risk, and threaten tens of thousands more in supporting and dependent industries,” he said. 

Former West Virginia governor Sen. Joseph Manchin III (D.-W.V.) said, “Today’s announcement of yet another onerous rule by the EPA completely ignores the devastating impact these regulations will have on jobs and our economy, not only in West Virginia but across this nation.”

Manchin said he has drafted a bill that would ease the expensive new requirements with Sen. Daniel R. Coats (R.-Ind.) that would avoid billions of dollars in new costs to the economy in the middle of a recession, which would lead to massive job losses.

“I believe we can find a responsible and reasonable balance when it comes to the environment and our energy needs as a nation,” he said.

“I hope that Congress will address these regulations, and take up the Fair Compliance Act as soon as possible, to prevent the potential loss of a million jobs, increased utility rates, and more damage to our economy,” he said.

Roberts said he support the Manchin-Coats bill, which he said would be a reasonable approach.

“Instead of taking a reasonable approach that gives utilities the time they need to meet the stringent requirements set by these rules, the White House and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have decided to stick with rigid requirements that will lead to the premature closing of dozens of power plants around the nation and the potential loss of 56,000 megawatts of electric generation capacity,” he said.