Op-Ed: How to make coal truly ‘competitive’ 

West Virginians have been treated to a display of raw political payback over the last several weeks in Charleston. Emboldened by sweeping victories in last November’s election, a new majority in the state Legislature is advancing legislation on multiple fronts that is designed to remove decades of laws and regulations that they believe have made West Virginia “uncompetitive.” 

One of the industry groups set to benefit the most from all this is the coal industry, which has been in trouble lately, no question. The industry’s supporters say that to fix that problem, we need to roll back safety regulations. That, apparently, will save money. My question is, will it be enough? 

Will making miners carry a critically injured worker three times as far to get life-saving transportation to the surface be enough? Will forcing miners to breathe more cancer-causing diesel fumes underground be enough? Will making it impossible for grieving family members to sue a coal company that is responsible for the deaths of loved ones be enough? 

Somehow I doubt it. First of all, one has to know what it means to be “competitive” in the coal industry. Let’s take a look. 

Wyoming’s Powder River Basin produces more than three times as much coal as West Virginia. As of today, the spot price of Central Appalachian coal is about $53 a ton, delivered to a customer. Powder River Basin coal costs about $11.50 a ton. 

What will it take to compete with coal being sold at about one quarter of the price of our coal? I just don’t think rolling back decades of safety improvements will do it. Nope, we’re going to have to do more. 

Let’s bring back the company store, so the companies can take back the wages they pay to the miners. Maybe the companies can once again charge the miners for the tools and equipment they use. Longwalls and continuous miners are expensive; it seems only right that the companies recoup t-heir costs for them. 

And we can bring back the company town, so the miners can pay rent to the company for the privilege of living in a forced labor camp while working at a more unsafe mine. We can put company doctors back to work, because of course they are the most qualified to say if injured miners are healthy enough to go to work or have black lung. But no painkillers, though. 

While we’re at it, let’s go back to paying miners by the ton, and then allowing the companies to define what a ton actually is. And when miners do get paid, let’s pay them in company scrip again, because it’s always more competitive if companies don’t have to actually deal in U.S. legal tender. 

Why stop there? Our state can save billions by once again eliminating public schools for the children of miners, because they’ll just be going to work in the mines and who needs them to know anything more than how to run the mine equipment? Heaven forbid they actually get an education and learn about the world outside the coalfields. 

Of course, all this will mean doing away with so onerous a burden to employers as labor unions — but the Legislature is already hard at work on that, too. After all, allowing workers to have a voice, exercise their constitutional rights and use their collective power to make gains at the workplace is how we got into this mess in the first place, right? Can’t have any more of that. 
And after we do all this, maybe — just maybe — it will be enough to make West Virginia coal “competitive” again. But then again, maybe not. There is the export market to worry about, and China and India enforce absolutely no safety standards in their coal mines at all while paying miners just pennies a day. 

Perhaps that can be a subject for the Legislature to take up next year. 

Cecil E. Roberts is international president of the United Mine Workers of America. 

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