Clues from coal fields

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Two days after I arrived in southeastern Kentucky, a coal mine explosion killed five men in nearby Harlan County. In the four weeks since the miners died, I have traveled through the coal-field counties in Kentucky and West Virginia.

What I see is that coal is not the clean, cheap energy source that the coal industry advertises. The market price of coal may be relatively low, but the cost to the region is high. We are leveling the Appalachian Mountains, burying streams, polluting the water supply, and destroying North America's oldest and most ecologically diverse forests in pursuit of a fleeting supply of electricity. With underground mining, the cost is measured in lives.

In addition to the five deaths in Harlan County, two separate explosions in West Virginia earlier this year killed 14 men. All told, there have been 33 coal mining fatalities in 2006. So far. In all of 2005, 22 died.

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One West Virginia woman taught me the deceitfulness of the phrase "clean coal." Her home of 55 years was worth $144,000 at its peak. Since a coal processing plant was built next door, a layer of soot covers her house and property. The value of her home has fallen to $12,000. In a voice hoarse with emotion she said: "This is a terrible way to finish up my life."

The coal-field residents I have met consider it an egregious wrong that a relative few suffer for the benefit of all. There are many opinions among residents about how to make coal mining safer and more sustainable while growing the region economically. The following four solutions are drawn from the spectrum I have heard:

1. Enforce existing laws. The culture of nonenforcement that reigns in federal, state, and county governments has been a blessing for the coal industry. Waivers and variances are commonly granted, allowing the industry to sidestep key requirements.

Provisions concerning mine ventilation, blasting damage, and watershed contamination need to be fully and universally enforced. Companies should be required to fix their missteps rather than get off with only a small fine. The Harlan County mine where the explosion occurred had received 264 written citations since 2001; the largest fine was a paltry $3,400.

2. Internalize mining's social consequences. Economists speak of externalities, the social consequences of private decisions that all of society is forced to bear. Conversely, the government should develop a simple, fair system whereby companies face the social costs of mining. For instance, the company that built a coal plant and a 2.8 billion gallon toxic slurry impoundment behind Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia should have to pay a fee equal to the consequences borne by the school and the community.

3. Compensate the communities. For every ton of mined coal, Kentucky and West Virginia levy a 4.5 percent and 5 percent severance tax, respectively. That tax revenue should be directed to the affected coal-producing counties, instead of being used to close budget shortfalls and fund other state projects.

4. Diversify the economy. The dominance of the coal industry has handicapped the region's ability to develop other lasting industries. Tax subsidies should not go to coal companies; instead, incentives should encourage local entrepreneurs and emerging sectors.

Electricity generated by coal keeps the lights on in homes and businesses across the country. The people who live in these fossil fuel-rich mountains know better than anyone that coal mining is here to stay. These residents have the most promising solutions for reviving the region and preserving nature's gifts while forcing the responsible extraction of coal.

Nick Anderson is a student at the University of North Carolina and an intern with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

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