Coal's comeback in western Pennsylvania

Long-term effect on climate hard to visualise in coal country where new mines are bringing new jobs.


    I was in western Pennsylvania recently, coal country. It was the same day James Comey, the former FBI director, was testifying before Congress in Washington, DC.

    As US media focused on Comey and the Russia scandal, the view of the Trump presidency from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain chain stood in sharp contrast.

    People there are cheering the opening of a new coal mine that's bringing 70 new jobs.

    And many believe the policies of President Donald Trump, while not directly responsible for the opening, are helping an industry that has long been the bread and butter of this community.

    "Having the tone at the top favourable towards coal is great for us, it helps our investors, it helps our outlook, and helps us open new mines," said George Dethlefsen, the CEO of Corsa Coal, told Al Jazeera at the grand opening.

    "It symbolises a new chapter for this area."

    Seventy jobs may not seem like much, but the ripple effects of those jobs are being felt throughout Somerset County, population 76,000.

    That's where John and Betty Rhodes have been running the Coal Miner's Cafe since 1989.

    The walls are decorated with pickaxes and mining helmets, not to mention Bibles and a memorial to United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a local field on September 11, 2001.

    Back-breaking work

    John, a decorated Vietnam veteran, admits he was eager to get out of the mines after working a few years there as a young man.

    It's back-breaking work. But it's also one of the few high-paying jobs in this rural area with miners able to take home a yearly six-figure salary.

    Trump has promised deregulation to help bring back the coal industry [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

    "If you got 70 more families coming into your business and all the businesses in the area, it's a trickle-down effect," said John, whose two daughters also work in the cafe.

    "It gets everybody a little bit more money."

    He points to his two great-grandchildren eating breakfast in the corner and states proudly that he gets to see them every day.

    More mining jobs, he says, mean other families' children will be able to stay in the community, and not have to move away to find a good job and raise their families.

    "Coal mining was always a part of our life," said his wife Betty.

    She takes out her iPhone and shows me a photo of four young men in caps and T-shirts who had come into her bar the night before.

    They work at another local "deep mine" which opened in 2013, with much less fanfare.

    Good safety record

    Betty says the miners are thrilled to see this new mine opening.

    They tell her the company has a good safety record, which is important to her, having lived through a nearby mine collapse in 2002 which trapped nine men for more than three days.

    While the miners lived through the collapse, the years that followed took a toll on the business.

    During the Obama presidency, stricter environmental regulations and an abundance of cheap natural gas lead to declining demand for the carbon-emitting fuel.

    Nationwide, 36,000 jobs were lost.

    For Somerset County, it was personal.

    "When they shut everything down, people lost their jobs, lost their houses, their cars," said Betty.

    Still, while Trump has promised more deregulation to help bring back the coal industry, not everyone in Somerset County is convinced that's the best way forward for the community, never mind the country as a whole.

    "We in this area have a hard time looking past the things we've depended on the last 60-plus years," said Lucas Yoder, who stopped to chat at the filling station across the street from the Coal Miner's Cafe.

    "It's not going to be a long-term viable thing."

    Clean-energy jobs

    Only about 50,000 people currently work in the coal industry nationwide, down from a peak of 170,000 in 1985.

    A recent Sierra Club analysis of Department of Energy data finds that jobs in clean energy outnumber those in coal mining five to one.

    "Any fossil fuel has such an effect on our environment. There is climate change, you can't put on blinders to that," said MJ Picklo, whose front porch overlooks the Acosta mine, a gaping 46-metre hole and industrial site in what used to be farmers' fields.

    Jobs in clean energy outnumber those in coal mining five to one, a study says [R Galbraith/Reuters]

    "Coal is not the answer, coal is a dying industry."

    The coal they mine here is metallurgical, and in growing demand by the steel industry, especially in China.

    I was told by Corsa Coal it burns cleaner than steam coal, which is used in power plants.

    Demand for that remains low in the United States where there is an abundance of cheaper and cleaner burning natural gas.

    'Stop the coal mine'

    About a dozen protesters wearing orange T-shirts emblazoned with "stop the coal mine" had gathered on Picklo's front lawn with a loudspeaker as the grand opening took place under a white tent in the car park.

    Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and company executives had gathered for speeches and a catered lunch with red "Make Coal Great Again" miners' hats as centrepieces.

    Trump, who mentioned the new mine when he announced the US was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, sent a video message of congratulations.

    "I'm absolutely thrilled to be speaking with you on this great, great day," he said to the assembled crowd.

    "The miners of Pennsylvania - we're digging coal again ... Clean coal will power America into the future."

    Just as they were about to cut the ribbon, the protesters could be heard taunting Wolf and yelling "Stop the mine".

    I asked CEO Dethlefsen if he believes climate change is happening. He said he believes it's happening but "man's impact is hard to quantify".

    New line on climate change

    This seems to be the new line on climate change from the fossil fuel industry, which once actively promoted denials.

    With the scientific evidence incontrovertible, they question how much is due to human activity, and how effective humans are to stop it.

    They also point to the fact that India and China are still buying coal. And have a legislative agenda supported by Trump calling for more deregulation.

    "I think the key aspect that's missing from the debate is the economic impact of [fighting] climate change," Dethlefsen said.

    His sentiments were echoed by every other Corsa Coal worker I spoke to at the event, including one who wore a miner's hat with a sticker that read: "Stop the War on Coal, Fire Obama."

    On that beautiful spring day, under a tent in the lush foothills of the Alleghany mountains, where the air is fresh, everyone was seeing green.

    There the long-term effect of coal on the environment was much harder to visualise.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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