State Sen. Walt Helmick (D-WV)
At an exclusive coal industry retreat this month, a top West Virginia politician bemoaned the negative image of the state’s coal industry in the wake of this year’s Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners. Looking for a silver lining, Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick (D-WV) contrasted the death toll from mining coal to the deaths from drug overdoses in McDowell County, West Virginia’s poorest. In a stream-of-consciousness speech during the annual West Virginia Coal Association membership meeting in White Sulphur Springs, Helmick complained that “we” — the coal industry and its political allies — “don’t give the press signs” to put coal’s deadly toll into context:
If we lose [deep mining] because of some things that have happened in the last couple of years — the mine disaster is obviously connected to the increase — we don’t give the press signs. Well, we lost 29 miners. That’s terrible. We understand that. We got to deal with mine safety — we all understand that. You guys work together to do what you folks do to make sure that doesn’t happen. But, you know, for instance, in McDowell County there are about eight or nine deaths a month with drug overdoses and that’s nothing to do with this. Talking about the issue, talking about the negatives.
Helmick went on to describe the “positives of coal.” He noted that coal severance taxes provide most of the income for West Virginia’s infrastructure bond fund: “21 million for water and sewage in West Virginia”:
Talk about the positives of coal? 24 million dollars a year that goes into the infrastructure — 21 comes from coal. 21 million for water and sewage in West Virginia. Coal has no damage whatsoever to any of my district, to be honest about it. But yet we use that infrastructure money in Pocahontas, Pendleton, Grant, Hardy, Hampshire, Morgan, all of those counties to offset that.
Unfortunately, West Virginia’s dependence on the coal industry is linked to its deadly endemic poverty. Drug-scourged McDowell County is West Virginia’s coal capital, having produced more coal than any other county in the state. Coal millionaires like Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship are killing West Virginia while they take billions in profits — killing the people with mining disasters and toxic pollution, destroying the mountains and streams with mountaintop removal, and destroying the economy by slashing jobs and fighting modernization and economic diversity.
Fixing the coal industry’s dirty reputation will take something more than better press relations, or as others at the coal retreat suggested, new propaganda in classrooms. Instead, West Virginians need to take the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s advice and embrace a cleaner, safer future.