Ryan Zinke

Rick Shrum/Observer-Reporter

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is shown speaking during his Feb. 24, 2018, visit to Fredericktown.

How can the residents of a coal town find work when mining operations wind down or shut down?

Saying that rejuvenating communities in and around mines and coal-fired power plants is its priority, the Center for Coalfield Justice and others this week urged federal leaders and policymakers to invest in a national effort to support the people and places hit hardest by changes in the coal industry.

Making headlines locally has been the bankruptcy filing of Murray Energy, based in St. Clairsville, Ohio, in October 2019.

The demand for coal is down, often supplanted by abundant supplies of natural gas and oil that have made the United States an exporter.

Planning its political agenda began before the novel coronavirus reached the United States, developments like these plus “the COVID pandemic are making conditions in coal communities even more dire,” said Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, Monday as she introduced a telephone press conference.

The pandemic and related business shutdowns and cutbacks resulted in a nationwide unemployment rate of 13.3% in May, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Various leaders unveiled a National Economic Transition Platform that calls for:

  • Investment in supporting local leaders and organizations to lead the transition, especially Black, brown, women, and indigenous-led organizations;
  • Supporting local small businesses and entrepreneurship;
  • Providing a bridge for workers to quality, family-sustaining jobs;
  • Reclaiming and remediating coal sites;
  • Improving physical and social infrastructure;
  • Holding coal companies accountable during bankruptcies;
  • And creating entities to coordinate the transition program and equip communities with the resources they need.

Brandon Dennison, chief executive officer of the Coalfield Development Corp. in Wayne, W.Va, said his state “struggled with economic development even before the pandemic struck.”

He pointed to solar energy installations as part of “trying to build the workforce of the future.”

His organization also advocates retraining and entrepreneurship.

On its website, Coalfield Development takes credit for creating more than 200 new jobs, more than 50 new businesses, and more than 800 professional certification opportunities for unemployed people, many of whom were laid-off coal miners.

Veronica Coptis, executive director for Coalfield Justice said her organization has canvassed Washington and Greene counties and found “overwhelming support for cleaning up messes that were left behind.”

Although Southwestern Pennsylvania mines are “profitable and could be for years,” she also has seen a legacy of “big companies bailing on our towns” with COVID-19 draining “what little resources we have left.”

Preserving pension and benefit programs during coal bankruptcy is also a priority of the platform, Coptis said.

Jimmy Slevin, president of Utility Workers Union of America said, “We have seen huge changes in the energy sector, As we enter the political cycle, we have to make sure people are talking about just transition.

“We’ve seen far too long how communities have been left behind.”

Because of rampant novel coronavirus outbreaks in large cities, workers may focus on opportunities in rural areas, but without broadband internet access, they are unsuitable for the demands of 21st Century technology, according to the teleconference.

Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO said his objective is that “the workers who powered a generation don’t get lost.”

Coptis said it’s important for people who live in local mining areas to find out, “What does our community look like after coal?” ask candidates where they stand in relation to the platform presented this week and communicate this to voters.

Peter Hille, president of Mountain Association for Community Economic Development said, “Coal didn’t collapse due to regulation, it collapsed due to natural gas.”

Although coal mining has been a part of the economy of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio from the dawn of the industrial age in America, those organizing the teleconference also addressed the needs of Navajo reservations where it is also significant.

Statewide in Pennsylvania, there were 4,401 people employed in bituminous coal production in 2018, down from 181,678 a hundred years beforehand when pick-and-shovel and room-and-pillar methods were the norm. It also came at a high cost of human life in 1918, with 494 fatalities, which was down from 806 in 1907.

Total bituminous production reached its historic peak in the Keystone State in 1918 at 177,217,294 tons.

During this century, coal production in Pennsylvania dipped to 44.8 million tons with 4,130 employed in 2016. This rebounded in 2017 at 52.7 million tons and a workforce of 4,559 and zero fatalities, then dropped to 51.7 million tons produced by a workforce of 4,401 with two killed.

The results of the 2016 presidential election showed Washington and Greene counties as Trump Country, and holding onto swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio is a priority for the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, a Republican, as he makes a bid for a second, four-year term Nov. 3 against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

In a formerly Democratic stronghold, Trump carried 14 of the 15 school districts in Washington County by margins varying between 51% in California Area to 74% in McGuffey in 2016. His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, carried Washington School District, which includes the city and East Washington.

Trump amassed 60% of the presidential vote totals to Clinton’s 35% countywide.

Then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke traveled to Fredericktown in February of 2018 to discuss mine reclamation during the Trump administration, including the Black Dog Hollow project, also known as the Clyde Mine. State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Fayette/Greene/Washington, called its legacy a “huge gob pile.” In Pennsylvania, $55.7 million was earmarked for mine reclamation.

Work to remove the slate dump is in progress.

In former coal mining communities in the southeastern part of Washington County, Trump trounced Clinton in Marianna, Ellsworth, Bentleyville, Cokeburg and East Bethlehem. Not everyone voted a straight-party ticket as Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty was able to carry three of the former coal communities and half of East Beth’s four precincts, but Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey prevailed statewide.

With many active mines and coal cars trundling along train tracks as a backdrop, Greene County turned into a place where news crews from worldwide outlets set up shop as they sought the pulse of coal country in 2016.

In Greene County, the gap between the Republican and the Democrat was even more profound on election day with Democrats forsaking the party in droves. Precincts within the five school districts showed Trump receiving 68.4% of the vote to Clinton’s 28.2%.

There was enough ticket-splitting, however, for Democrat Snyder to capture a victory in four out of five school districts, losing to Republican Betsy Rohanna McClure in only the West Greene area in her home county. The 50th Legislative District also includes slivers of Washington and Fayette counties.

The state’s chart of bituminous operators and production sites in 2018 listed four underground operators in Greene County with seven underground mines, bested in Western Pennsylvania only by Somerset, Indiana, Clearfield and Cambria counties. Coal is king in Somerset, which also led the regional pack with an additional 36 surface mines.

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