Sohn: Don't trade dead-end coal jobs for public lands

Sohn: Don't trade dead-end coal jobs for public lands

August 8th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

FILE — A Massey Energy mountaintop removal mine in southern West Virginia, July 22, 2010. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Photo by STEPHEN CROWLEY

Just close your eyes and imagine mountaintop removal coming to a Great Smoky Mountains peak near you.

The Trump administration is making an aggressive push to reinvigorate the struggling American coal industry and exploit commercial opportunities on public lands by encouraging more coal mining on federal property.

Not that we need that coal, mind you. Coal is to 21st century energy what buggy whips became to 20th century energy once gasoline engines sputtered onto roadways.

Nonetheless, Trump continues to stroke his dwindling base by rolling back environmental and conservation regulations in the name of fake-making America great again.

To be clear, we're not saying the peaks of the Smokies should be lined with alternative energy windmills either. The Smokies should be preserved as the beautiful public park it is. But one must acknowledge that at least as a wind or solar park, it would provide far more new and good-paying jobs than coal ever will. Wind jobs outnumber coal jobs in more than 20 states, and solar jobs outnumber coal jobs in almost two-thirds of states. Together, they beat coal in at least 40 states — including Tennessee and Georgia — according to the 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report.

There is another reason for this. Coal is no longer a cheaper form of energy — even with government favors. (More on that later.) In fact, coal hasn't been for some time if pollution and environmental cleanup costs are factored in.

We have our own example of this. The Tennessee Valley Authority spent upward of $1.2 billion to clean up after the Kingston ash spill.

It took six years to clean up the spill from an 84-acre ash-sludge landfill behind the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn. On Dec. 22, 2008, TVA's faulty 60-foot-high earthen berm broke open to unleash 50 years of liquid, toxic coal waste. The equivalent of 1.1 billion gallons of useless and dangerous muck — a by-product of burning coal to make electricity — spilled over more than 300 acres of residential and farm land, as well as 100 or so acres of the Emory River, a tributary to the Clinch River.

To help you envision this destruction, one acre is about the size of a football field — so visualize 400 football fields covered with gray muck containing silica, mercury, selenium, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants. As the wind and sun dried the material, the dangers took to the air, as well.

TVA's 9 million electric ratepayers have been paying an average 69 cents a month for the cleanup since October 2009. And we'll keep paying for it until 2024, according to TVA projections. Eventually, TVA bought out 150 residents on 181 tracts of land as residents worried about their health and property values.

TVA contract workers — sometimes 300 a day — hauled the muck to train cars and sculpted the moonscape into greened-up swales. But that, too, will continue to cost us. Just last month some of those workers sued the California-based contractor hired by TVA to oversee the cleanup. The workers, a number of whom have died or are dying, say they were not properly suited up to work in the toxic ash. And in fact, they were discouraged even from wearing dust masks — even after they and community members complained of respiratory ailments known as "ash flu."

None of this is to say coal miners and others who work or have worked in the coal industry should be abandoned. Far from it. Even in the buggy whip industry, people and leaders recognized it was time to move on to skills and jobs that could sustain them.

But for some unfathomable reason, the Trump administration and a disproportionate segment of the Republican Party and conservatives don't seem to be able to move as quickly as the buggy whip industry.

So to save coal — today's buggy whips — our government is moving to open up 643 million acres of federally owned land — most in the West. That's the size of six Californias.The New York Times notes that not since the Sagebrush Rebellion during the Reagan administration have mining and other special economic-interest companies held such sway with conservatives and government. And the sway is now beginning to look like the tsunami of ash that washed over our East Tennessee community.

By the time former oil industry engineer and REI executive Sally Jewell became President Barack Obama's Interior secretary in 2013, more than 40 percent of all coal mined in the United States came from federal land, and when it burns it generates about 10 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. Further, those companies were — and still are — massively shortchanging us taxpayers, according to a Government Accountability Office study.

Under federal rules adopted in 1920, coal companies are required to pay "not less than" 12.5 percent on sales of surface coal mined on federal lands. But for years, coal companies paid far less — as little as 2.5 percent — because they often used a loophole to negotiate large royalty discounts with sympathetic federal officials.

When Jewell tried to stop this and enforce the government's competitive bidding rule (only 11 of the 107 sales of federal coal leases between 1990 and 2012 received more than one bid), the coal industry sued.

Who do you think stepped up to side with the coal industry? Answer: Then freshman Republican congressman from Montana, Ryan Zinke, the man who now is Jewell's successor as the Secretary of Interior.

It might be good to visit the Smokies while they're still smoky — as opposed to dusty rubble.

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