No Negative Coal Poetry, Please

WV Governor's ArtsBy Peter Galuszka

Meanwhile, over in West Virginia, the long arm of King Coal reaches over to a high school poetry reading.

Grace Pitt, a Hurricane High School student, wanted to read a poem by Charleston poet Crystal Good about Richmond-based Massey Energy’s April 5, 2010, disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 men. The reading was to be held at the West Virginia Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony this week.

The poem describes how the disaster, the deadliest in this country in 40 years, created 29 black diamonds “in what they call a ‘mine disaster’; others ‘industrial homicide.’ (The United Mine Workers of American titled their report on Upper Big Branch as “industrial homicide.”)

According to the Charleston Gazette, before the reading, Tabitha Walter, grants coordinator for the Division of Culture and History and a sponsor of the ceremony, emailed that “I really hate to do this, but because your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there, our director wants you to choose a different poem.”

The email went viral and the push back was so strong that the state department backed down.

The poem will be read Thursday.

It is not unusual in the coalfields for coal companies and other energy firms to bankroll cultural events and perhaps maintain some degree of control over them. Alpha Natural Resources, the Bristol-Va.-based coal firm that bought Massey, funds “Mountain Stage,” a roots and folk music program with a national audience that is produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The public broadcasting group also recently ran a soft documentary that noted how natural gas has been drilled for years in the Mountain State. The film was an apparent propaganda effort to smooth public acceptance of using controversial “fracking” to reach Marcellus Shale gas fields.

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8 responses to “No Negative Coal Poetry, Please

  1. Pretty outrageous if you ask me.

  2. I think long and hard about Peter’s excellent articles about coal but I am often conflicted and here’s why.

    Out west, coal and gas and oil occurs in arid places often way out in the middle of nowhere.. We’ve been vacationing out west for 6 weeks at a time for years and I love the west but it’s a big ass place … where all kinds of resource extraction can and does take place with far less damage to the environment compared to the same activities in the 4 times as wet environment in the East.

    so what it boils down to for fossil fuels in the east – is can the fossil fuels be extracted for a cost – that makes it competitive with the costs of western fossil fuels – and the harsh truth is – they cannot unless they are willing to allow more environmental damage.

    and without that – the jobs go away and the Appalachian economy becomes even more wretched and hopeless.

    If we toughen environmental regs – the fossil fuels become uncompetitive with western fossil fuels.

    it’s a tough deal.

  3. Larry, I think you make a good argument about the differences between eastern and western coal. And people need jobs. The people of Appalachia deserve more than the “East Coast Pukes” would give them.

    But I still think Grace should have been allowed to read the poem.

  4. yes… but Coal is King in WVA not because of evil doers or East Coast Pukes or whatever but because people need jobs and politicians who represent them have to make deals with the coal company devils to get those jobs – and unfortunately that means looking the other way on safety and environmental issues.

    I don’t like it …. I think it’s wrong – but the people who need the jobs rightly own the decision …. the only real advantage they have is proximity of their coal to where it needs to be burned (and exported).

    that’s what keeps them in business – us folks who need electricity – we too have a choice. we could pay higher electricity bills to get safer mines and outlaw mountain-top removal.. but it would be higher electric bills.

    • Larry, a lot of people in our area, especially my area, hold average Americans in total contempt. It would be nice if we could have energy without any pollution. Or live without disease or crime. It would be great if no one ever got in a car accident or teenagers never started doing drugs. But we live as imperfect people in an imperfect world.

      We need energy. I think we need a mix of energy and alternative energy sources. But the people of West Virginia need jobs. People in our area who have jobs often on the backs of taxpayers are more than ready to outlaw other people’s way of life or jobs. The biggest evil is not the coal miners or the coal companies, but the arrogant people who judge the rest of America.

      How come the alternative energy industry does not look towards breakthrough technology that will disrupt the existing energy companies. But they don’t have it.

      • re: ” The biggest evil is not the coal miners or the coal companies, but the arrogant people who judge the rest of America.”

        I cannot disagree.

        “How come the alternative energy industry does not look towards breakthrough technology that will disrupt the existing energy companies. But they don’t have it.”

        don’t have it …. yet! but they will but not perfect.

        I still refer to the WSJ article that says utility companies are terrified that even if a few people start using solar – that they’ll have to increase rates on others – that will then encourage others to install solar –

        aka – like folks buying more fuel efficient cars to keep their gas costs down.

        It won’t happen with a huge overnight change.. but gradually…. as Dominion and others seek de-facto rate increases like they are right now -ostensibly for a Nuke but in reality as a hedge against future alternative energy. A new NUKE is going to have stupendous stranded capital costs that ratepayers are going to pay for no matter what…

  5. Larry,
    You raise an extremely important point about east and west U.S. energy sources.

    The West, of course, has had plenty of energy extraction disasters .New Mexico had a huge coal mine disaster many years ago and the problems of water depletion for oil and gas drilling and the wastes from uranium extraction are well known.

    Yet, the West has advantages because of its geology and its remoteness.

    (1) Coal. Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming and Montana represents about half of the coal production in this country. It is in rolling badlands-type areas and comes in big, thick seams of 40 plus feet. It is made-to-order for huge, capital intensive mines which is why big energy firms and sometimes oil firms get involved. The rolling, gentle pitch of the hills makes it easier to reclaim. The coal is low-grade, low-heat value but it is very low in sulfur. It is easy to rail away. All of it is for electricity plants. I love it when the “War on Coal” types claim that government regulation is killing coal as they completely ignore the Powder RIver Basin which is the country’s largest and most important coal center. It is thriving.

    (2) Coal in Central Appalachia (Southern West Virginia, Virginia and Eastern Kentucky) is among the best in the world. It is high heat, low sulfur and some is the best sort for metallurgical purpose, i.e. steel making. The problem is that it is hidden in jagged, steep hills and mountains with high water tables. It used to be very labor intensive although not as much as before. It is in thin seams and expensive to mine. I attended a coal conference in Florida last year and a presenter noted that has natural gas prices drop, the relative cost of Central Ap coal goes above the no-profit zone — leading to layoffs. Of course, gas prices are up but Central Ap coal cannot compete as readily even with lesser-grade Northern Appalachian coal (Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia) that is of somewhat less heat value and higher sulfur. The sulfur doesn’t matter as much since the utilities went to scrubbers a couple of decades ago.Central AP coal can’t even compete with Illinois Basin coal.

    (3) I just finished the book “The Frackers” by Greg Zuckerman which has great detail on the independent wildcatters who made fracking what it is today although it is light on environmental impact. The author notes that fracking has been used for years in the West in Texas and Louisiana and then in North Dakota. All of those are areas that are either remote or used to oil and gas drilling. When fracking went to Pennsylvania (ironically, the historic home of oil drilling) and its wetter and more populated environment did it become controversial. People noticed the noise of the generators, the dirt the water trucks kicked up and the problems of “flow back” from wells that contains bad stuff and has to be sequestered in waste ponds. No one really knows about the impacts on watersheds. Companies don’t want to reveal what toxic chemicals they use.

    So what happens in Central Appalachia? That’s the $64 billion question. I’ve reported on it for years but nothing seems suitable. You have plans for eco-tourism, ATV resorts, whitewater rafting, call centers and, of course, high tech that everybody dreams of.

    The place where I used to live, Harrison County, got a huge boost in the 1980s and 1990s when the late Sen. Robert Byrd got the FBI to locate a fingerprint center there.

    The place is porkopolis and has a troubled future.

    • I wondered if you knew about the FBI place and here it turns out – you came from there!

      I personally wonder if WVA coal is headed the same way as whale oil… and the only question is timeframe.

      I suspect that part of Dominion Resources strategy with the 3rd Nuke at North Anna – is to retire older coal plants and the advent of fracking and cheap gas might accelerate that.

      I have yet to see a real “clean coal” plant but if that were a possible reality, it might change the dynamics… I used to suspect it was a scam because the idea was to “sequester” the pollution by pumping it deep into bedrock formations… but of late I’ve heard there are ways to mix the pollution with other stuff that then converts it to inert substances.

      of course also up your alley is Russia and the Ukraine and I’ve heard one US response to that would be to help Ukraine wean itself off of Russian gas and develop their own fracking capability!

      One thing I know for sure – anyone who has sit in their house with the electricity off for hours – in the cold or heat – knows how fundamental electricity is to our lives so all the green weenie ideas about killing those nasty coal mines and coal plants would probably have a change of heart if they had to go without electricity for a week or month.

      there are folks who do live “off grid” but the thing is when you read about most of them – they may not use grid electricity and they make have solar but most of them also have big time propane and other fuels to “power” their abodes.

      consider an efficient home backup generator that runs on propane. It will use between 2 and 4 gallons of $3.00-$4.00 a gallon propane to run.

      In other words – $6 to $12 an hour to power their home… or $70-$100 a day or $1500 a month.

      think about that in terms of what folks earn for a living and what other expenses they have in maintaining a home.

      we get 24/7 electricity for $2-3 a day!

      but that comes from folks working in dangerous mines and others removing entire mountaintops to keep from having to tunnel.

      all – to provide us with electricity for cheap…

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