Coal Companies Want YOU To Pay Their Debts

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The coal industry — what’s left of it — wants American taxpayers to cover more of the cost of treating black lung disease and cleaning up abandoned mines, according to The Washington Post. This is precisely the kind of corporate money grab that free market apologist who call themselves conservatives celebrate.

US coal industry
Image credit: US Department of Energy

It’s a heads we win, tails you lose strategy that glorifies corporate profits, demonizes Big Government, then sticks taxpayers with the bill. It’s called privatizing the profits that industries earn while piling the costs of the harm they do onto the backs of ordinary citizens. It is the bedrock of modern conservatism that everyone from the alleged president on down glorifies and is the distillation of the maniacal preachings of Charles Koch for the past 50 years.

Here’s how this version of the game works. In 1969, the federal government set up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to insure miners with black lung disease would receive the treatment and care they need if coal companies go bankrupt. Today, the coal companies pay $1.10 into the fund for every ton of coal they produce. Now, under the guise of dealing with the economic fallout from the coronavirus, they are lobbying to cut that payment in half.

And while their Gucci-shod mouthpieces are slinking through the halls of Congress, they also want to suspend their payments to a program designed to fund the cleanup of abandoned mines. The cuts and rollbacks, if enacted into law, would save the coal companies about $220 million. As my old Irish grandfather used to say, “A man can steal more money with a brief case than a gun.”

Try this mealy-mouth statement from a spokesperson for the National Mining Association on for size. In an e-mail to The Post, Ashley Burke wrote, “We are committed to continuing to work for the American people and economy and are not asking for a bailout. We do hope, however, that the government is willing to work with us to find ways to ease the economic burden on the industry during this time so we can continue to offer uninterrupted operations in support of the country.” She adds her association hopes Congress will “provide meaningful relief, and will safeguard the health and safety of the workforce as well as the environment.” Quick! Pass me my vomit bag.

They’re crooks!” says Harold Sturgill of West Virginia, who suffers from black lung disease after spending 35 years down in the mines. “They’re going to try to use this virus thing to stop paying benefits.”

The trust fund is already about $4 billion in debt, thanks to coal companies which have declared bankruptcy and scampered out the back door, leaving taxpayers holding the bag. Of course, in a rational world, any assets available in bankruptcy would go first to pay such liabilities instead of paying off creditors. If you are dumb enough to invest in a dying industry, you should expect to shoulder your losses, but that’s not how the grossly distorted capitalist system works in America. The rich and powerful make sure the laws favor them first and foremost. Everyone else is on their own.

David Bounds is another long time coal miner from West Virginia with black lung disease. He tells The Post, “The burden should be laid on the coal operators. They come in our state, they mine our coal, they fill their pockets up, they declare bankruptcy. They leave with all the cash and all the money, and there’s no money to pay the miners.” That is about the purest explanation of Koch inspired free market business ethics you are likely to find anywhere. And yet these pernicious concepts are now accepted as gospel by America’s wealthiest citizens and corporations.

Where Is Despicable Mitch?

Mitch McConnell — who wouldn’t know a scruple if it bit him on his buttocks — has made his political career defending the coal industry, but now he is nowhere to be found as the debate over relief for the coal industry rages. Despicable Mitch is up for re-election this year after 30 years representing eastern Kentucky and he is parsing every vote. For decades, he has been supported by the coal industry, but corporations don’t vote (yet) and so he has to carefully calibrate his position to avoid pissing off voters, many of whom were coal miners. A sizable number also suffer from black lung disease.

A spokesperson for McConnell favored The Post with this weasel-worded statement. “Senator McConnell is working hard to help get resources to families and employers quickly and has been proud to partner with President Trump to support our dedicated coal workers.” Translation: he’s going to help the companies any way he can while giving the voters the impression he is in their corner.

“He’s kind of playing it both ways,” says Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. “He wants to give miners the idea he’s on their side, but I don’t think the coal companies fear they have lost an ally.” Phil Smith is a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America. He suggests McConnell is carefully weighing the political cost of supporting one side or the other. “I think it’s something he’d rather not deal with. There are a lot of people in eastern Kentucky who have this disease, and they vote,” he says.

And there you have the essence of the rot at the core of American politics — representatives who have no core principles they believe in. The one and only consideration in their miserable lives is getting elected and they will say and do absolutely anything to make that happen.

Which reminds me of a joke I heard once. It was about lawyers but it is equally pertinent to most Republican lawmakers today. “Medical researchers have started using Republican politicians in lab experiments instead of rats. They found they became less emotionally attached to the Republicans and there were some things the rats absolutely refused to do.” If that’s the case, McConnell should have no problem finding work in the medical research field if he loses the next election.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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