Coal communities: More than one side to the story

Dec 10, 2011

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INTRO: Coal produces nearly half the electricity in the U.S., but the mercury, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide it emits also make it one of the most controversial energy sources. New EPA regulations and a national Sierra Club campaign to try to shutter the industry have added to rising anti-coal sentiment. For many environmental activists, coal represents an old, dirty source of power, but for coal-mining communities around the country, the story is different. Carolyn Beeler reports.

CAROLYN BEELER: Greene County is filled with rolling green hills and is bordered on two sides by West Virginia. Here, coal still reigns. Literally.

ANNOUNCER: I’d like to welcome everyone to the 58th annual Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal show, and tonight’s Coal Queen pageant.

BEELER:  A local high school auditorium is packed on a stormy Sunday evening for the crowning of the Coal Queen.

ANNOUNCER: Candidate number six…


BEELER: The evening-gown clad high school students tout their coal mining pedigrees along with their volunteer work and grades.

GIRL: Good evening, my name is Alexis Zawelensky and I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter as well as your Lower Highlands senior representative.

BEELER: One in five jobs in Greene County is in mining, and a third of the county’s general fund comes from taxes on coal. It has been a major industry here for generations, which means that unlike in many places.

SNYDER: Coal is not a dirty four-letter word.

BEELER: Pam Snyder has been Greene County’s commissioner for eight years.

SNYDER: Coal means jobs, sustainability on our tax base, families being able to make a good living, raise their children, have decent health-care.

BEELER: Snyder says she doesn’t see anti- coal campaigns as an attack on her community’s way of life --- but more like a misunderstanding.

SNYDER: I think if you live in a part of the country where coal has no place and never existed, you are just used to turning on your light switch, never giving thought to where that electricity’s being powered from, but I think people do need to understand that, they need to understand what coal has meant for this nation and what it can mean for this nation in the future.

BEELER: Snyder’s county is home to four major underground mines, including the largest in the country.
Miners at Bailey ride an elevator down 700 feet, then take a half-hour- long ride on an underground trolley car just to get to the job site. There, a massive automated shearing machine lumbers along and slices away the surface of an exposed wall of coal. Chunks fall from the ceiling into a sludge of water mixed and coal dust.  It’s a far cry from the days of pick-axes but mining is still hard, dirty work. Yet, it pays well --- an average of almost 90-thousand dollars a year, much higher than the county average. In August, the Obama administration put in place new rules designed to cut the amount of air pollution from coal-fired power plants by more than half. The EPA is drafting global warming rules that could hit even harder. Miner Tom Mills says he sees new regulations as a threat.

TOM MILLS: No matter what you always worry about your job. You need to be mining coal to get paid. And if they shut these power plants down, these coal-fired power plants, what are they going to use the coal for?

BEELER: Like many in the industry, Mills says the future of energy lies in cleaner-burning coal, not in renewable energy.

MILLS: Instead of the Sierra Club donating money to shut these places down maybe they should have donated those millions of dollars to technology to make them burn cleaner.

BEELER: Perhaps a more immediate threat than new EPA regulations, though, is the natural gas boom. The tapping of huge reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation right in Greene County and across the region has driven down the price of natural gas and made it more competitive.

BROCK: It certainly could push out a percentage of the coal.

BEELER: That’s Jimmy Brock, head of coal for Consol Energy, which owns Bailey mine. He says natural gas and new regulations could cut into the market for coal. But if demand drops domestically, he’s confident the international markets will make up the difference.

BROCK: I am not worried for the future of coal. I believe coal’s here today, I believe it’ll be here tomorrow, and I believe it’ll be here for many years to come.

BEELER: Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder puts it differently. Although she says a serious blow to the coal industry would cripple her county’s economy.

SYNDER: Nobody’s pushing panic buttons yet.

BEELER: The share of the nation's electricity generated by coal during the first quarter of this year was at its lowest in more than 30 years, due largely to low natural gas prices. But with U.S. demand for electricity expected to grow by a third in the next quarter century, the industry says King Coal is here to stay.