West Virginia pol Walt Helmick: Compared to drug overdoses, coal isnt so bad

This is a Wonk Room cross-post.

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.

— Brad Johnson

17 Responses to West Virginia pol Walt Helmick: Compared to drug overdoses, coal isnt so bad

  1. Bob Doublin says:

    For the most part, drug deaths are done by the individual addict on him or herself. In order for this analogy to even remotely begin to be adequate,wouldn’t the addict have to administer the overdose, WITH the victims assent or NOT, to the victims, the less the addict knows the victims the better? Talk about rationalizing GREED ADDICTION!

  2. Leland Palmer says:

    The health and environmental effects of global warming, which could include extinction of a significant part of the human race toward the end of this century, outweigh all the other environmental impacts of coal.

    Most people in the general public don’t care much about mountain top removal, for example. You could even make a case that they are right. I don’t agree with it, but the environmental impacts of coal mining are tolerable, generally – except for global warming.

    Do we dilute the message if we talk about the other health and environmental effects of coal use, while we talk about global warming?

  3. Siera Smith says:

    The new electric cars can charge all night on electric generated by coal. This will bring carbon free transportation.

  4. Chris Winter says:

    You’re right, it’s a bad analogy. I think it’s also true that these bigwigs are in denial when they say that drug addiction in West Virginia is not related to the coal industry and its practices.

  5. WVhybrid says:

    While McDowell County may have once produced a lot of coal and coal jobs, its population has crashed by 80+% since to 1950s.

    The social problems brought on by lack of employment opportunities have been devastating to the coal fields. Addiction to prescription drugs (hillbilly heroin) is just the latest in a long line of addictions faced by a population whose only future is the 3 R’s of West Virginia education (readin’, ritin’ and route 77 to Charlotte).

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    Adverse health effects

    THE INDUSTRIAL age has gifted the world with great advances in science and technology. However, we, humans, have neglected to prevent the expected

    adverse side effects on our environment of this quantum progress. As a result, we have contamination of the air we breathe (industrial pollutants), the water we drink (heavy metals), the food we eat (pesticide residues), which cause debilitating and deadly

    diseases; and, destruction of the ozone layer, which increases our risk for the development of cancer, etc. One latest study shows that the umbilical cord blood samples of newborns tested positive for a variety of toxic substances, obviously inhaled or ingested by the mothers throughout the pregnancy.

    Our rivers, lakes, and oceans, are used as “dumps” for garbage and toxic chemicals, destroying water life and coral reefs. Our irresponsibility and cruelty to our environment is ushering in global warming and the melting of the ice caps, resulting in grave weather changes and tsunamis around the world.

    Each year, about 64,000 people in the United States who die prematurely from cardiopulmonary diseases associated with air pollution, according to the US National Resources Defense Council.

  7. Prokaryotes says:

    Study Links Chronic Illness To Coal Mining Pollution

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    The Pollution-IQ Equation
    Smog Is Affecting More than Asthma Rates—It‘s a Factor in Falling IQ Scores

    Smog is more than just a health hazard for the elderly and asthmatic. The latest research suggests living near a busy roadway with higher-than-average smog may be linked to lower IQ scores and other health impacts in developing newborns.

    Smog occurs when ground-level pollution mixes with pollutants like those released from car and truck tailpipes and from coal-burning power plants’ smokestacks, creating a dense haze. A 2007 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found the first link between smog and falling IQ scores in children.

  9. Dave E says:

    #2 Global warming may be the worst effect from coal, but even without global warming contamination of fish and streams with mercury would be sufficient reason to move away from coal. The fact that we must warn people not to eat too much fish, mostly because of pollution from coal, seems intolerable.

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    The Sky is Falling
    Big Coal to Congress: Save us from EPA!

  11. WVhybrid says:

    At least here in WV, the immediate social costs of de-industrialization and unemployment (such as drug addition, suicide, domestic violence, and copper theft from live power lines) exceeds the immediate costs of air and water pollution from the coal industry. When you are a proud mountaineer, used to self sufficiency, and you don’t know how to pay for next month’s groceries, there is little concern for a couple parts per trillion of mercury in the coal ash runoff.

    To put things in perspective, so far in WV this year 4 people have been electrocuted stealing copper wire from live power lines. The last case I know of mercury poisoning was in Japan in the 1950’s. (Unless you consider the Tea Party mad hatters as possible candidates.. B-) )

    That is not to say that the somewhat longer term effects of global warming won’t be catastrophic. It will be. But the story of global warming is complex, and the science community has failed to effectively combat the disinformation mouthpieces funded by coal and oil interests.

    Appalachian mountain politicians will continue to oppose any restrictions on coal mining and combustion until honest substitutes for coal mining jobs are available for their voters. And that substitute must be something beyond moving to the Appalachian white trash ghettos of Akron, Detroit, and Cleveland, as generations of mountain folks have been forced to do.

  12. Brad Johnson says:

    The irony is that — as Rick Boucher and Robert Byrd recognized — the only future for coal lies in carbon capture and sequestration. And the only way for that technology to get off the ground is to make it economically viable by pricing coal’s pollution. Otherwise coal plants will get phased out in favor of natural gas and efficiency, and the steady slide of job loss initiated by the coal industry not because of regulations but through the mechanization of profit will accelerate.

    Furthermore, if WV pols really wanted to save coal jobs, they’d stop the low-labor, high-capital mountaintop removal and drive investment into safer deep mining.

    Or they can keep turning the Mountain State into the Scree State, and watch global warming-fueled floods wash the forests away.

    BTW, on the mercury poisoning front, don’t forget Jeremy Piven.

  13. Edward says:

    2 Leland Palmer: “toward the end of this century”

    Nope. Try 2037 as computed by Bart Levenson. See:
    comment # 253
    In only 27 years agriculture will collapse, collapsing civilization. Add 27 to your age. In a typical collapse of civilization, one person in ten thousand survives.

    BPL’s computation is the first I have heard of that gives a date to the catastrophe. That makes it important.

  14. Edward says:

    Coal contains: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Thorium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get all the uranium and thorium we need to fuel nuclear power plants for centuries by using cinders and smoke as ore. Unburned Coal also contains BENZENE, THE CANCER CAUSER. We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders. The carbon content of coal ranges from 96% down to 25%, the remainder being rock of various kinds.
    If you are an underground coal miner, you may be in violation of the rules for radiation workers. The uranium decay chain includes the radioactive gas RADON, which you are breathing. Radon decays in about a day into polonium, the super-poison.

    Chinese industrial grade coal is sometimes stolen by peasants for cooking. The result is that the whole family dies of arsenic poisoning in days, not years because Chinese industrial grade coal contains large amounts of arsenic.

    Yes, that ARSENIC is getting into the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil your food grows in. So are all of those other heavy metal poisons. Your health would be a lot better without coal. Benzene is also found in petroleum. If you have cancer, check for benzene in your past.
    for most of the above.

  15. WVhybrid says:

    Edward is right, there are several useful minerals in coal ash. Does the technology exist to separate the high value elements from the rest? Can it be done at a profit? Care to fund me to research the technology of how to make the separation? Trace toxins, I agree, should be cleaned up, locked up, and not disturbed. But to a local politician, the overwhelming weight of meth, copper theft, drug overdose, wife beatings, and broken guard rails far outweighs the hard to understand hazards of trace toxins in someone else’s fish dinner.

    As for Rich Boucher, he’s from Virginia. Seems to be a common mistake, mixing up Virginia and West Virginia. (“From West Virginia, eh. I’ve got a cousin in Richmond”….) We split from those ol’ Cavaliers back in 1863. Mountaineers didn’t think much of Virginia politics back then, what with slavery, the rebellion and the “look down their nose” snotty attitude… still don’t, either. Don’t think Rich Boucher’s wishes are worth much ’round here.

    As for Senator Byrd, well, the old lion of the Senate has passed. The Byrd droppings have stopped. Such is life…..and death. His staff, who wrote his last speeches, have lost their power. The replacement for Senator Byrd, from either party, will feature “Friends of Coal” stickers on their bumpers.

    Look, burning fossils fuels has to stop, or our civilization will. There is no doubt about that fact. But WV politicians will not support anything but business as usual as long as they PERCEIVE the changes to cause more drug overdose deaths. The attacks on science have been very effective here in the mountains. As long as the well known scientists Rush Limbaugh and George Wills continue with their lies, WV politicians will have the crutch to ignore the truth.

    Regarding CCS. Good luck on that. The “environmentalists” of Greenbrier County, WV stopped a wind farm that was permitted and ALREADY UNDER CONSTRUCTION. This year FERC finally granted a license to a little 2 Mw hydro project in Montana (check out P-12107 docket) that was first submitted for approval in 2001. And that was on an existing dam! Betcha the paper used for approval weighs more than the turbine. Gotta hand it to the owners of that dam, they sure were stubborn to wait out 9 years of delay. Stopping the pumping of an asphyxiate with CCS under folks farms and homes would be child’s play compared to those tricks.

  16. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Edward (post # 13)-

    I can’t say that 2037 is the wrong date. Lovelock estimates six billion dead by 2011, and that sounds conservative in some ways to me.

    What I think might happen is that the climate destabilization may be worse than projected, but our ability to save people temporarily from being killed by those effects may be underestimated.


  17. Leland Palmer says:

    Hmmm, must have hit the wrong key by accident. Sorry about that. Continuing…

    …Still, there’s not a lot of comfort in thinking that we may be able to save more people than we think we now can, during the next 90 years, given that the eventual outlook is absolutely catastrophic.

    The sense I get is that there is a terrible non-randomness to this climate data, and that climate change is happening far too fast. I think we’re headed for a methane catastrophe, myself, similar to the End Permian mass extinction. We may or may not be able to avoid that, at this point.