West Virginia mine disaster shows high cost of fossil-fuel dependence

The West Virginia coal mine explosion should compel us to work for a 21st-century energy strategy that doesn’t depend on costly and dangerous fossil fuels.

The Appalachian Mountains are the lungs of West Virginia. They are also the backbone of our nation’s most rugged state, imbuing our people, our culture, and our heritage with that same ruggedness of spirit that many identify as quintessentially American.

The mountains breathe life into our people, providing pristine vistas for spiritual renewal. For 150 years, they have given a bounty of coal that has helped fuel our nation and the world.

Generations of our sons (and recently, our daughters) have put their backs into the hard work of digging out that precious resource, and all too often have given their lives in order to provide their families with some measure of livelihood.

As an Iraq war veteran, I can understand the pride that our miners feel in their jobs, putting their lives on the line to provide our nation with a valuable resource. Soldiers and miners alike have contributed more than their share to our nation’s security and prosperity. But I have yet to meet a soldier who would wish his children off to war.

With the coal industry supporting 20 percent of the state’s economy, one could easily say that today, West Virginia is dependent on coal for survival. Monday’s explosion and tragic consequences at the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy is a stark reminder of the true cost of this dependence, and a symptom of the societal black lungs we have been left with.

The people of Appalachia deserve better than this. The truth of West Virginia’s “dependence” on coal is full of much murkier water than Massey or state government representatives would have us believe.

It is just as likely that the coal industry itself is dependent on the continued subservience of our political leadership, dependent on the people of West Virginia, than the other way around. Last year alone, Massey was forced to pay nearly $1 million in fines by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration for noncompliance, and continues to contest hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional fines. The Upper Big Branch mine alone received over 450 safety citations in 2009, and two even on the day of the tragedy.

Yet Massey continues to treat these fines as a cost of doing business – a “cost” that now equals the loss of at least 25 workers in the worst mining accident in a quarter century. Will it be a call to action for corporate change? Don’t count on it. Massey didn’t change course after the Aracoma mine fire of 2006.

Many folks are now calling for review of the MINER Act and for stricter regulations on mine safety, giving the Mine Safety and Health Agency more teeth to do its job. Since current fines appear to cost less than compliance, this would be a good first step. But it is not a long-term solution.

Our continued national addiction to “cheap” fossil fuels is the real culprit.

We demand cheap domestic coal, and operators such as Massey respond to that demand by cutting corners, and ultimately sacrificing the blood of workers to the altar of profit.

If we want to end this waste of human life and potential, then we need to aggressively pursue other sources of energy and create lasting wealth in Appalachia built on human capital and renewable resources. For just as our energy policy is a very real threat to our national security, it continues to prove itself deadly on the domestic front.

While we must push for stricter regulation on this deadly industry, we must also demand the that Congress take action on energy and climate policy.

Without accounting for the true costs of coal and other fossil fuels, we will continue to bear unnecessary risks to secure our energy at home and abroad. Without an aggressive push to diversify the options for our Appalachian workers, they will be forced to continue the work of their fathers and grandfathers, and we will see more tragedies like this in the future.

Clean-energy manufacturing jobs, wind project development, and solar technology research and development can provide part of the solution, and give the children of our sacrificed miners a chance at a better future.

The choice is ours: We can choose to take the lead in a cleaner, safer energy economy, or we can condemn the people of West Virginia, Appalachia, and America to relive the tragedies of our past.

Jon Gensler, a former Army captain who served in the Iraq war, is studying for master’s degrees at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School of Management.

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