Sunday, March 20, 2011

Heading back to the debate in Appalachia

I'd like to beg your indulgence and reprint a portion of a column I wrote about the West Virginia coal industry nearly 13 years ago for The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. Some of the details and the numbers may have changed in that time, but the overall sentiment remains valid enough:

I am offended by an industry that had to be forced by federal law to provide a workplace that is even remotely safe. Even now, the industry sabotages efforts to control coal dust. Coal dust causes black lung.

In sufficient concentrations it causes mine explosions.

Before the Mine Safety and Health Act passed in 1969, hundreds of miners lost their lives every year. The industry accepted that as a cost of business. Actually it was a savings. Safety measures cost money -- more money than industry bean counters thought the lives of miners were worth. Since 1969, miners have died at one-fifth the rate they did before the mandated reforms and inspections.

This is an industry that had to be forced by federal law to limit ravages to the environment. Before the Clean Water Act passed, acid mine drainage killed creeks all over the state. Such drainage still causes problems. Before the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act passed, strip miners left scarred and pitted mountains in their wake, without even a nod toward reclamation.

The state is still trying to clean up many of these sites. Yet the industry has the gall to complain about being over-regulated.

This is an industry that used its undue influence on state politicians to get $80 million a year in "super tax credits" for supposedly creating jobs -- while the number of miners drops ever lower. Industry associations defend huge companies that used fly-by-night contractors to escape hundreds of millions of dollars in Workers' Compensation debts and union pension obligations.

This is an industry that forces coal truck drivers who want to make a decent living to illegally overload their trucks, making mincemeat out of state roads and endangering other travelers.

This is an industry that hauls $100 million of coal a year through Cabin Creek, while poor children play in raw sewage.

Finally, this is an industry that rips the top off mountains and dumps the "spoil" in valleys, burying miles of streams and headwaters, then has the nerve to claim that the newly flattened "fish and wildlife habitat" is an improvement over mountains, forests and streams that used to provide genuine fish and wildlife habitat.

I wrote that column with a younger man's passion and self-righteousness, but in rereading it, I'm not sure that age or any wisdom I've accumulated in the intervening years would cause me to tone down anything. In fact, I'm sure that it wouldn't.

I left West Virginia in 2003 to take a job in Florida. Four hurricanes later, I was pleased when former editorial page editor Tommy Denton offered me a position here. I have enjoyed my time and my work here, but I have to admit that few of the issues we covered engaged me as much as the debate that continues to rage in Appalachia.

As one astute observer wrote to me when news broke that I would be leaving the newspaper to join the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, "I had a feeling that concern for the Appalachian environment is where your heart is, but as head of The Roanoke Times editorial page staff you couldn't write about it every day. Now you'll be able to speak freely and often on subjects such as mountaintop removal, associated water pollution, and their impact on Appalachian communities and people."

The center does excellent work in those areas and more, and I'm excited for the opportunity to help Executive Director Joe Lovett and the rest of the staff as they battle against the many abuses perpetrated upon the people and places of Appalachia.

When I left the Gazette, I wrote about how my 10 years there had shaped me as an editorial writer and how I had come to realize tremendous satisfaction in helping give the powerless a voice as they fight the exploitation of the powerful.

That exploitation has been a recurring theme in the history of Appalachia, and fighting it is the mission of the organization I'm joining.

The debate is about coal, climate change, state and federal regulations, the fragile economies of states like Kentucky and West Virginia, and the mountains, rivers and forests of Appalachia. It involves complex, emotionally powerful issues involving people's jobs, their health, their homes and their children.

I am looking forward to retaking a place in that debate.

Radmacher's last day as editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times will be March 31. He is launching a personal blog at

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