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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kerry in a Coal Mine

Air Date: Week of

Democrats hope John Kerry's strong environmental record will carry him to the White House. But it might turn away voters in a few key swing states where the coal industry still dominates. Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports on what happens when Kerry the contender meets King Coal.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

As John Kerry's run for the White House swings into high gear after the Democratic Convention, a key concern for his campaign is coal country: the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. In the 2000 campaign Al Gore was outspoken about the dangers of climate change and dirty air caused by coal-fired power plants. And some pundits say that stand cost him West Virginia and its five electoral votes - five votes that would have given him a victory.

Once again, folks in coal country are nervous about the new Democratic nominee, whom Mr. Gore praised on the convention floor.

GORE: He had the best record of protecting the environment against polluters of any of my colleagues -- bar none.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports on what happens when the new contender John Kerry meets old King Coal.

YOUNG: On one side of the road the bumper stickers read, "I love mountains." On the other they read, "friend of coal." Only in coal country could statements so innocuous become political fighting words.


YOUNG: At this roadside demonstration on a muggy afternoon in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, those slogans summed up the divided sentiments of a region tied to a coal economy and suffering coal's environmental damages. Speakers like Larry Gibson lashed out at the Bush administration's view of coal as cheap energy.

GIBSON: Ah, people, if you only knew the true cost of coal and what it’s costing the people. You can't put it on a piece of paper. You can't write it on a piece of paper. Look into a man's heart or a family's heart when they're losing everything--they’re losing their water they’re losing their land they’re losing their houses from dynamiting.

YOUNG: Gibson's family property is nearly surrounded by the blasting and earthmoving of a massive mountaintop removal mine. That form of surface mining blasts the tops from hills to expose coal seams. The waste rock and dirt is dumped into valleys. It's buried or polluted 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams and flattened some seven percent of the region's forested mountains.

Mountaintop removal mining in southern West Virginia. (Photo: Vivian Stockman, OVEC)

GIBSON: You ever been slapped in the face? [CLAPPING] I get slapped in the face every day I get up and look at the mountains! [CLAPPING] I’m slapped in the face every day! Tell people you're mad and it’s got to come to an end before they destroy all the mountains we have in West Virginia. [CLAPPING AND CHEERING]

YOUNG: Across the highway from where Gibson is speaking, mining officials and supporters met in an air-conditioned conference room to promote coal for the nation's energy security.

HAMILTON: Coal is just sitting in the catbird seat, if you will, fully prepared to take advantage of the shared goal of becoming more energy independent.

YOUNG: Chris Hamilton is vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association and he has ample reason to support George Bush again in '04. The administration has boosted mountaintop mining by changing clean water rules, scrapped clean air restrictions on coal fired power plants, and let the power industry help write new rules on mercury emissions. And Bush rejected the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty, which would have had big effects for a greenhouse gas source like coal.

HAMILTON: I will say that the administration's performance is very commensurate with the expectation that was based on campaign promises and campaign positions.

YOUNG: The coal supporters have studies showing every job in a mine has a broader economic effect on eight other jobs in the region. Environmentalists point to surveys showing a little more than half the area's residents oppose mountaintop mining. Such sharp divisions make these mining states a minefield for a candidate like John Kerry who must please environmentalists in his base while reaching out to coal-patch voters.

To understand what's at stake it's helpful to take a quick trip back to the last presidential campaign. Candidate George Bush was a frequent visitor to coal states like West Virginia where he played up his support for coal.

BUSH: Good folks of this state, no matter what your political party understands what I understand: the importance of coal. That coal is gonna help energize America. And that requires working with the people of West Virginia and that requires clean coal technologies to make sure the good folks of this state can find work.

YOUNG: Bush pledged two billion dollars over 10 years to develop ways to reduce the pollution from burning coal, an approach known as clean coal technology. Warming up to coal paid off for the Bush campaign. The mining industry pumped almost four million dollars into Republican coffers and some power industry executives were among Bush's top fundraisers.

With just a few days before the election, Bush returned to West Virginia, a state with twice as many Democrats as Republicans, and made this swaggering prediction.

BUSH: Who would have thought that the Republican candidate for president was gonna be able to say this: I'm gonna carry West Virginia!

YOUNG: Bush was the first Republican challenger to win the state since Herbert Hoover. If Gore had won there it would have meant more than all the hanging chads in Florida.

ROBERTS: Let's face it. If he'd won West Virginia he'd be president of the United States right now.

YOUNG: That's United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. Roberts says miners’ misgivings about Gore's environmental policy, and Bush's relentless attacks on that theme, cost Gore the state. The UMWA endorsed Gore in 2000 but many rank and file miners did not vote their union's choice. Roberts says a sticker he saw on a pickup summed it up.

ROBERTS: It was a coal miner and in back of his truck he had a sticker that said ‘I'm a coal miner and I vote. Just ask Al Gore.’ So clearly, the message that got down to coal miners back four years ago was if you vote for Al Gore you're voting yourself out of a job.

YOUNG: So what message will miners get about John Kerry, who also supports action on climate change and opposes mountaintop removal mining?

ROBERTS: John Kerry has already spoken to this issue of coal. He has on his web site a very clear and distinct position on coal and it does not eliminate coal from the energy equation in the United States. So anyone who wants to make decision based on the environment, based on keeping their job, the economy of these coal-producing states, I think they can feel very comfortable with John Kerry.

YOUNG: The UMWA has endorsed Kerry early in this campaign. But even if Roberts can deliver all his union's votes, they represent only about 40 percent of the country's roughly 80,000 coal miners. And non-union miners seem much less inclined to vote Kerry.


YOUNG: Pritchard Mining's strip mine near Charleston, West Virginia is one of the non-union operations in the state. Mine manager Rocky Hackworth watches the ‘dozers and dumptrucks work their way through rock and dirt to coal.

HACKWORTH: First you have to clear the trees off the top, and then you bring ‘dozers in, clean off and level the bench to level it off, drill and shoot, then the ‘dozers or endloaders come in and start moving the rock off.

YOUNG: Hackworth admits it looks like a bomb went off. But this area was first mined decades ago and left in a mess of highwalls and bad water. Hackworth calls himself an environmentalist and says his company will leave this site better than it was.

(Vivian Stockman, OVEC)

HACKWORTH: Five years from now there will be grass growing on this area, seedlings planted already and trees will be starting to grow.


YOUNG: Hackworth has been in mining for 23 years. He's a registered Democrat but voted for Bush in 2000 and plans to do so again. He's concerned about Kerry's stance on climate change and support for the Kyoto Protocol.

HACKWORTH: It would end up shutting down the industry. We have several state and federal agencies that govern us and inspect us on a regular basis and we try to adhere by the laws but with the Kyoto treaty and clean air it would almost eliminate the burning of fossil fuels. And my question is, if we eliminate one of our big sources of energy then where do we make it up?

YOUNG: Mine supervisor Larry Raines is a Republican who votes coal above all other issues. He thinks a Kerry presidency would doom his industry.

RAINES: I believe he’d allow it to be over-regulated to the point that we couldn’t mine it economically and we’d just gradually fade away. I just couldn’t vote for a person that’s against the way I make my living and feed my family. That’s just what it boils down to.

YOUNG: When John Kerry made a visit to the heart of coal country in Beckley, West Virginia, his speech did not include mountaintop removal or climate change. But he did draw a link between coal and clean air issues.

KERRY: Do you know that the biggest source of hospitalization of children in America in the summertime is asthma? Do you know that that this administration is going backwards in the quality of air in America? Well, guess what? We could put a lot more people to work in the state of West Virginia if we were willing to increase our efforts for coal, for coal clean technology, clean coal technology.

YOUNG: Sound familiar? Clean coal is the same phrase Bush used on the coal campaign trail in 2000. But Kerry promises $10 billion for clean coal, five times the Bush commitment. Bush has put hundreds of millions of dollars into coal research. But critics in Congress say he's fallen far short of his campaign promise. Chief among those critics is West Virginia's powerful senior senator, Democrat Robert Byrd. Byrd launched the clean coal program in the '80s and in a recent Senate hearing Byrd told Bush's energy secretary the administration is nowhere close to its $2 billion target.

BYRD: Now you’re looking at the daddy of the clean coal technology program. I understand what those words mean. I understand what the president meant when he said ‘em. He said I’m going to ask the Congress for $2 billion. A promise made is a debt unpaid. That promise was made, the words are etched in stone. We expect that promise to be kept. It’s not being kept.

YOUNG: While Byrd presses Bush on clean coal funding, some Kerry supporters are in an awkward spot, too. Environmental groups have a long record of bashing clean coal. In 2000, the Sierra Club called it an Orwellian term -- greenwash for dirty energy. League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan called clean coal an oxymoron. Both those groups have endorsed Kerry. And now that Kerry is endorsing clean coal, LCV President Callahan is learning to like the idea -- or at least the Kerry version of it.

CALLAHAN: When John Kerry talks about quote-unquote clean coal, it’s different because he's looking at the whole fuel cycle. You know, it's a shame they're using the same term because they're really talking about two different approaches here.

YOUNG: In Callahan's view, the Bush version of clean coal mostly aims at reducing a few air pollutants. She says Kerry's program would go beyond that to also capture coal's greenhouse gases.

CALLAHAN: Thus coal, while we’d like to still consider it a transitional fuel, we believe that there are technologies that can come to the fore that can allow us to burn coal without exacerbating our climate change problem.

YOUNG: The Bush campaign claims the administration is already working toward that goal with its FutureGen project, a billion-dollar quest for a zero-emissions coal power plant. If the line between the Bush and Kerry proposals on burning coal seems a bit murky, Callahan says the difference is clear when it comes to how companies get the coal out of the ground.

CALLAHAN: John Kerry has opposed mountaintop mining. He’s clearly got a very strong record and a clear vision in terms of public lands protection and landscape protection.

YOUNG: That's not something Kerry talks about on the campaign trail, especially not the part that goes through coal country where he's trying to embrace both the coal and the mountains that hold it. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young.


CURWOOD: Coming up: a behind-the-scenes look at the locals who inhabit some of America’s seaside vacation meccas all year long. You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Clint Marshall “?r2” &Mac185; SOUNDTRACK (Thrive – 1998) ]



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