The questions raised by the decline of coal power have become heavily politicized in recent years. While Donald Trump’s presidential campaign famously promised to revitalize the dying coal industry, that promise goes against a litany of economic, medical, and scientific realities. In places such as West Virginia, whole communities depend on the economies centered around coal mines. Those concerns should not be dismissed lightly. Many of these miners and former miners often live in areas with few immediately available economic alternatives. Many of the communities came to exist in the first place because of the coal industry. Their fears are very real.
But promises to “bring back coal” lend false hope to populations in need of real alternatives.
The shift away from fossil fuels to embrace clean energy is matter of more than just politics. There are many reasons for the decline in coal jobs, and in the big picture, the change is a positive one. No one politician can, or should, reverse this decline.
Not only is coal-power bad for the planet, but it’s among the most difficult and dangerous ways to make a living. It always has been, causing an average of 50 to 60 deaths each year on the job, from explosions, cave-ins, carbon monoxide, and methane gas. And this only covers the immediate dangers of working in a mine. The fine particles that miners breath can result in chronic lung conditions such as pneumoconiosis. Long-term exposure to radon from can result in lung cancer. Back injuries can occur from heavy-lifting and shoveling.
And the notorious black-lung disease, all but eradicated by the late 90s thanks to improved safety measures, is making a big comeback. A research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February, showed that doctors in Appalachia are finding the highest rates of black lung disease in history. A record cluster of over 400 cases in Kentucky and Virginia represents the largest cluster of black lung cases ever identified.
NPR first reported that cases of the disease were spiking in 2014, prompting the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to investigate. Cases at clinics in coal mining areas have increased dramatically, and coal miners with the disease are dying younger than they were in the 90s. Clinics run by Stone Mountain Health Services, which treated five to seven black lung cases each year among its patients in the 90s, according to director Ron Carson, saw a staggering 154 cases last year.
An NPR investigation found that the spike is likely due to the difficulties of mining less easily available, thinner seams of coal. Miners are working longer hours, mining coal that is much tougher to reach, available thanks to new mining techniques and technology. These thinner seams also come with more excess rock. When broken down, damaging particles such as silicon dioxide, quartz, and crystalline silica dust, may be released in higher concentrations from this material.
In other words, coal mining may actually be becoming more dangerous. It’s important to not let politics get in the way of coming to terms with these deadly realities. However, the Trump administration announced plans this year for a “retrospective study” of new federal regulations enacted in 2016 to limit exposure to coal and silica dust, sparking fears that they be looking to roll back the rules. And last year, Trump’s interior department stopped a federal review of the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining for residents living near the mines. Earlier studies had suggested increased rates of kidney disease and lung cancer, and a higher rate of birth defects, in the areas surrounding the mines.
Perhaps these alarming health effects should alone be enough to prompt a move away from coal mining. But it’s far from the only reason. Pollution from coal-fired power plants is linked to 7,500 deaths each year in the US, according to the Clean Air Task Force, a number that has decreased in recent years thanks the closing of plants. Burning coal for energy contributes to global warming, and coal mining can emit methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
While some politicians may be slow to confront these realities, the economics of energy production are already adapting. Cheaper alternatives, including both renewables and natural gas, have made coal far less economically competitive. Political and consumer demands for cleaner energy are only icing on the cake. Coal jobs were already on the decline thanks to technology and automation, by the time coal production peaked in 2008. Since then, jobs have continued to disappear as coal production and use declines itself. In the past fifteen years, coal’s share of the energy market has declined by a third, while the share of renewables has doubled. And analysts say this decline stems from market forces larger than regulations or environmental concerns.
Trump’s empty promises to revitalize coal may have served him well in the election. But in addition to this being beyond Trump’s power, coal mining is bad for workers and for their communities in the first place. While these communities have relied on well-paying coal jobs for generations, federal job retraining programs may be the best hope for diversification and life after coal. In many communities, these programs are still underutilized, as miners hold out hope for a coal comeback, stoked by the Trump administration’s promises. In some areas where coal has been depleted and hope for a coal comeback is clearly unrealistic, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, these retraining programs are much more popular.
Trump is often praised for his “straight-talk.” But when it comes to coal, he is pandering to voters, telling them what they want to hear, with no regard for their well-being in the long-run. The sooner we accept that the era of coal has passed, the sooner coal workers can move on to greener pastures.