Column - Coal has been both a blessing and a curse for West Virginia
Published: Monday, March 12, 2012
Updated: Monday, March 12, 2012 23:03
Coal mining has been an integral part of West Virginia's culture for literally hundreds of years.
Explorer John Peter Salley was the first to discover the precious resource here in West Virginia in what is now Boone County during the summer of 1744.
But, since Salley's discovery, mining for coal has become more than just an energy industry here in the Mountain State. It's become a source of economic prosperity, a fiscal lifeline for impoverished, rural families and ultimately a way of life that represents the hard-working, blue collar demeanor of our state's residents.
Coal is also responsible for contributing approximately $3.5 billion annually to the gross state product of West Virginia, including $70 million in annual property taxes from the coal industry and another $214 million from the Coal Severance Tax.
Ninety-nine percent of West Virginia's electricity is supplied by coal.
It's very clear how essential coal has been to our state and its development.
However, coal mining has conversely posed significant threats to its laborers, the environment and sometimes even residents who just happen to live in close proximity to mining operations.
In fact, James Hansen, a NASA scientist, said "coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet."
While I don't share the same level of end-of-the-world animosity toward coal as Hansen, I can certainly attest to the fact that it is an industry that indeed threatens our environment as well as human life.
Nearly a century ago, my great grandfather was paid a couple dollars a day to ride the man trip hundreds of feet down into the earth's surface, working long, back-breaking hours to make sure his family had food on the table at night.
He worked his whole life only to die in his early 50s of "black lung," a horrific respiratory disease that still affects and kills miners today.
Fires, explosions and cave-ins have also killed thousands of American miners throughout history, and they remain a real risk to coal workers.
It's nearly impossible to pinpoint another domestic American industry that continues to put its faithful workers in harm's way as coal does.
The environment hasn't necessarily been spared, either.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, approximately 600 coal plants account for roughly a third of the nation's entire CO2 pollution.
And, in a span of a mere 10 years from 1992-2002, surface coal mining destroyed more than 380,000 acres of wilderness and 1,000 miles of waterways. That's just 10 out of hundreds of years of coal mining in America.
Let's face it: Coal has always been somewhat of an imperfect industry, providing jobs for those willing to work hard but perhaps unable to obtain a higher-education.
It pumps money into local economies and communities, but at the ultimate cost of the men and women who are brave enough to risk their well-being for their families.
And, despite the fact mortality rates have been significantly reduced over time, it isn't good enough. Not when alternative sources of energy (wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric) exist without comparable risk of death, injury or destruction of the environment.
I only hesitate to include natural gas because I think it's been proven that more safety regulation and research should preceed widespread exploitation of natural gas sources, like the Marcellus Shale, the largest estimated aggregation of the cleaner burning natural resource that just so happens to encompass nearly every inch of West Virginia.
If we can ultimately devise technology or methods to efficiently harvest this cleaner energy, it would, of course, be logical to pursue it. Alternative sources of energy could replace the risks of coal mining and save lives.
It shouldn't be an insult to the hard-working men and women of the coal industry of today or of any point during the past. Dedicated workers willing to work long hours to support their country, communities and their families is a foundation of this nation that, quite honestly, appears to be eroding with newer generations.
It's undeniable that for hundreds of years the coal-mining profession has brought sought-after opportunities and well-deserved pride to those willing to work for it.
I'm even proud today that a member of my own family was able to contribute to such an important historical legacy.
But, at the same time, it's absolutely critical we don't let this overwhelming sense of pride and respect interfere with our subscription to logical thinking in pursuing cleaner, safer energy for the future.