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Anthony Flaccavento: Which part of coal is the GOP ‘pro’?

The recent Friends of Coal Rally in Abingdon had a decidedly Republican face on it. Although flyers advertising the rally claimed that all Congressional candidates had been invited, I was not. I’ve had a longstanding commitment to coal miners and have worked to support improved black lung legislation. Coal mine safety and coalfield job creation are among my highest priorities. In spite of this, I didn’t receive an invitation.

I guess that’s not what they mean when they say “pro-coal.” The rally sponsors, the Eastern Coal Council, clearly had one message in mind: Regulations are killing the coal industry and if we’d just reverse or reduce them, coal mining jobs would take off. According to press reports, most of the GOP speakers stuck pretty closely to that script.

As a farmer, I’m no fan of one-size-fits-all government regulations, especially when they unnecessarily tie the hands of small businesses, family farmers or independent banks. I’m fighting for sensible regulations that strike a better balance between people’s jobs on the one hand, and the safety of workers, the health of communities and protection of our environment on the other. I have publicly called on environmentalists to put the people who make their living from the land – farmers, loggers, miners – at the top of their priorities, rather than being exclusively focused on the environment. It’s about balance, between workers and their neighbors, between our needs now and our children’s needs 50 years from now.

The GOP’s position on regulations isn’t concerned with balance. They are focused on getting rid of regulations, and not just those coming from the EPA. Apparently their “pro-coal” stance doesn’t include the health and safety of miners themselves. After the Upper Big Branch disaster, Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill that would have required quick action to address hazardous conditions and increase penalties for flagrant safety violations. It was blocked by Senate Republicans. A year later, GOP leaders successfully delayed new rules that would have protected miners’ health by reducing coal dust, the primary cause of black lung. And even though more than 4,000 Americans died from work-related accidents last year, they’ve worked to cut funds for OHSA, MSHA and other agencies whose job it is to protect workers. If we’re truly pro-miner, we should be working to make their jobs safer, to protect their long term health, not fighting to cut those protections.

If we’re pro-miner and pro-mining community, we also must stop hiding the hard truth: in Southwest Virginia and all of Appalachia, our coal supply is steadily dwindling, and with it, jobs. That’s why over the last three decades, we’ve seen huge drops in both coal production and employment. In 1990, 10,342 people were directly employed in Virginia’s coal industry. By 2000, jobs had fallen almost in half to 5,362. By the end of President Bush’s two terms – eight pro-coal, pro-oil years in which regulations were stalled or rolled back – we’d lost another 18% of our coal jobs, down to 4,394. So it’s clear: simply cutting regulations did not and does not create jobs.

To be pro-coal miner is to start telling the truth about this long-term job loss – which will continue whether a Republican or Democrat occupies the White House – and to work like mad, right now, to create new manufacturing jobs and new businesses that can begin to make up for these losses and build an economy that will provide opportunities for our children. To be pro-coal mining community is to insist that coal companies use mining practices that minimize damage to our neighbors’ water, land and air, including using deep mines wherever possible, which provides more jobs with less harm than mountain top mining.

In many respects, coal miners and their families are like our nation’s soldiers. A very small number have put themselves at great risk, and endured significant suffering, so that the rest of us could get an easy ride. I’m one of those who has had an easy ride thanks to coal miners, and I’m not going to dishonor their work and sacrifice by hiding the truth or lying about the trade-offs we face under the guise of being “pro-coal.” Because when I think “pro-coal”, I think of the miners and their children, and how we can help strengthen coalfield communities and build a better economy.

Anthony Flaccavento is the Ninth District Democratic Party congressional nominee.