The Real Costs of Coal Country Contributions


On January 9, 2014, over 7,500 gallons of toxic coal ash was dumped into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. Leaving 300,000 people without access to water for several days, this was the third chemical spill to occur in the Kanawha River Valley — aka “Chemical Valley — in the past 5 years.

The company responsible, Freedom Industries, had been sold just 10 days earlier for $20M to Cliff Forrest, the founder of Rosebud Mining. Freedom Industries had previously been enjoying $30M revenues, largely due to its contracts with other coal companies — most prominently, an exclusive contract with Georgia Pacific Companies LLC, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. But while the ink was still wet from the sale, Freedom Industries was suddenly faced with an environmental catastrophe that would result in numerous lawsuits, a Department of Justice investigation, and Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

After the chaos following the spill died down, the West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed Senate Bill 357, the Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015. But despite the bill’s name, no safety provisions were included.

Instead, this law would prevent coal companies for being sued for Clean Water Act violations if the standards being violated were not specifically written into individual state permits issued by the Deptartment of Environmental Protection (DEP). The law also made it illegal for the DEP to apply these standards to future permits. SB 357 also relaxed the amount of aluminum legally allowed in West Virginians’ drinking water, despite widespread public criticism.

The United Mine Workers of America came out in strong opposition, with President Cecil E. Roberts issuing the following statement:

Today marks the first time in West Virginia history that our state has officially reduced safety standards for coal miners. It is truly a sad day for those miners and their families, and once again demonstrates that our beloved state has yet to break free of the out-of-state corporate interests that have controlled the destinies of West Virginia’s working families for generations.

Unfortunately, this was not the last time the state’s lawmakers blatantly disregarded the health and well-being of its citizens in favor of coal money.

Often shrouding their bills in a thinly veiled layer of “job protection” and “safety” rhetoric, lawmakers have been falsely propping up a dying industry through countless safety deregulations, legal protections for companies, and environmental loopholes.

At a time when 46% of the public thinks that environmental protections should be prioritized over short-term economic growth, the industry has recognized this and it has pushed back immensely. Arguably, it seems to be winning. In the last several years,coal industry political contributions have blown up in an increase of over 500%— going from just over $3.2M in 2000, to almost $16M in 2012.

coal contributions
Source: Center for Responsive Politics


In the 2014 election cycle, the mining industry contributed over $7.7M to Congressional campaigns, with $7.2M of this going to Republicans.

One major player in the coal industry is Koch Industries, the now-notorious conglomerate known for its influence and campaign spending in conservative American politics. Through its PAC, Koch Industries spent $3,285,405 on political campaign contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone.

This investment is clearly paying off, as West Virginia’s own Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV), has sponsored a bill that will further loosen mining restrictions to the detriment of West Virginians’ water supply. Mooney has already received over $31K from Koch Industries for the 2016 election cycle.

Among the bill’s 34 co-sponsors, 25 have received money from Koch Industries in the 2014–2016 election cycles.

The bill currently on the floor, HR-1644, will significantly loosen the Stream Buffer Zone Rule, a rule that since 1983, has provided a 100-foot buffer zone between streams used as public water sources and nearby coal mining locations.

This rule has been under heated contention as environmental groups have come out in strong opposition to the rule, citing the consequences that will ensue in the areas’ local drinking water. This 100-foot buffer zone rule was just reinstated in 2014, after a six-year effort by the Obama Administration, which culminated in a federal court ruling out the previous rule enforced under the Bush Administration from 2000–2014. Under the Bush Administration’s rule, the 100-foot buffer zone was replaced with a requirement that mining companies “minimize” disturbances to a “reasonable” extent — a rule so ambiguous that enforcing any buffer zone was nearly impossible. The federal court which overthrew the Bush Administration’s rule did so on behalf of the administration’s failure to consult with appropriate wildlife agencies on whether the weakened rule also harms endangered species (it does).

The first regulatory thread this revision of the STREAM Act pulls is that of opening up protected streams to close-range coal mining. In 2015, the Dept. of Interior decided to amend the rule to include a larger number of streams worthy of environmental protection. Their revision requires companies to avoid mining practices that permanently pollute streams, destroy drinking water sources, increase flood risk, and threaten forests.

Forgoing any distaste for “burdensome regulations”, Mooney’s new bill makes it significantly harder for the DOI to update the STREAM Act. The bill requires that the Secretary of the Interior to publish all of the scientific data, environmental analysis, economic assessments, policies, and guidances used in developing any new rules at least 90 days prior to the rule being drafted. If this 90 day rule is not met, the new rule must be delayed another 60 days plus the number of days the research was delayed. If the research is unavailable for 6 months, the rule is automatically nullified; the only exception is when this rule poses an “imminent and severe threat to human life”, although the bill text does not define this threat at all.

Perhaps more importantly, the STREAM Act will allow the mining industry itself to reevaluate the ‘effectiveness’ of the Buffer Zone Rule.

This bill also requires the Dept. of the Interior to complete a study of the overall “legislative effectiveness” of the Stream Buffer Rule, which must be completed within 2 years and 90 days of the law’s enactment. This is required to be completed by the National Academy of Sciences, and overseen by the Dept. of Interior and theInterstate Mining Compact Commission, a multi-state commission that works to broaden the mineral and fossil fuel industries through regulation. The Interstate Mining Compact Commission exists to promote and protect the mining industry and to “represent the natural resource interests of its member states”. They also provide ‘mentoring’ on legislation, including but not limited to drafting legislation.

Yet despite the industry’s objections, coal mining’s impacts on local water quality has been proven.

The ‘ash’ that is produced is directly shown to increase levels of arsenic, mercury, and lead in nearby groundwater. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest emitter of global mercury emissions, and they account for 50% of all human-produced mercury emissions. These emissions are released, after which they settle into streams, lakes, rivers, and the earth, infiltrating the groundwater.

WV water
Well water in this Appalachian home was contaminated with coal ash runoff.  
Photo: Vivian Stockman (c) / OVEC

Coal consumption is expected to decline at least 20 percent in the coming decades. Vilifying environmental interests is an easy way to place blame for this, but the fact remains that the country is becoming increasingly focused on alternative forms of energy. This is just one example of capitalism, in its purest form, clearing out the anachronisms of the past in its inherently Darwinistic way. Propping up an archaic form of energy like coal, at the expense of our nation’s drinking water, has untold consequences that far exceed any CBO cost estimate available.

In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, a question looms as to what utilitarian cost-cutting measures are inherently threatening to the quality of American life. Many conservative politicians have allowed this ongoing state of sacrifice to continue in the hopes of protecting jobs and job creators, but raw economic data pales in comparison to the immeasurable consequences posed by toxic public resources. The conservatives who are supporting this bill do so for economic reasons, but the long-term economic ramifications of falsely propping up a fledgling coal industry far exceed any short-term job gains.


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