When President Donald Trump signed a new executive order seeking to curb the enforcement of regulations on climate change, he said it was in an effort to save American jobs in the coal industry.
In reality, an executive order is not nearly enough to curb the losses coal has faced. For coal jobs to truly make a comeback, the corporate interests that are automating miners out of their jobs would have to stop doing so. The abundant natural gas that resulted from more domestic exploration under the Obama administration would have to dry up. Renewable energy’s soaring popularity would have to take a nosedive.
None of that is likely to happen, and the coal industry knows it. Oh, yes, the 25 coal miners who attended Tuesday’s signing might get jobs, the global warming skeptics in the Trump administration will do a happy dance, and corporate coal interests will see profits surge because they won’t have to outfit their coal-burning power plants to protect our air. But the rest of us will get what we’ve always gotten in America: an environmental class war.
That’s because environmental dangers are more likely to be concentrated in communities populated by the impoverished and people of color.
And just like any other class war in this country, wealthy corporate interests will put working-class whites on the front lines. In this case, the pawns will be coal miners. As the Trump administration spouts rhetoric about reviving the coal industry, those miners will be sent to the front lines to sacrifice their bodies for the benefit of their corporate masters.
But that’s not the way Trump tells it.
“The miners told me about the attacks on their jobs and their livelihoods,” Trump said during the signing ceremony. “They told me about the efforts to shut down their mines, their communities, and their very way of life. I made them this promise: We will put our miners back to work.”
All the talk of protecting miners’ livelihoods and restoring their way of life sounds inspiring. That is, until we learn what that way of life actually entails. Coal miners not only face injury caused by falling rocks and other hazards they confront in dangerous mines; too often, the very air they breathe is killing them.
A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that “exposure to coal mine dust causes various pulmonary diseases, including coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).”
In that study, the CDC noted that coal miners were getting these diseases before age 50, and that those diseases, among others, lead to disability and premature death.
And despite Trump’s claim that Obama-era regulations are killing the coal industry, the reality is that the coal industry’s failure to follow regulations created nearly 50 years ago is killing their workers.
“The above individuals would have been employed all of their working lives in environmental conditions mandated by the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act,” said the CDC study.
Unfortunately, the coal industry has too often put profits before people. And if profit means miners lose 15 or 20 years of productivity as a result, so be it. There are always other impoverished, unskilled workers to take their place.
The Trump administration, through this executive order, has again shown that it shares that mindset. Unfortunately, the damage will extend far beyond the coal miners. If their families live near the mines and coal-burning power plants, they will be hurt, as well.
It’s happened before.
A 2008 study called “Relations between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia,” found that the 14 West Virginia counties housing the biggest coal-mining operations had higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension, diabetes, and lung and kidney disease.
Don’t worry, though. If Trump is to be believed, we can weather the harm done to coal miners, their families and anyone else living near coal facilities. And we won’t have to worry about greenhouse gases hastening global warming and submerging our cities beneath melted glaciers.
That’s because, in the mind of our president, global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to put Americans at a competitive disadvantage.
So even if the coal industry belches black smoke skyward, destroys the ozone layer and enables the sun to burn every living thing to a crisp, we’ll die happy. In Trump’s mind, the competitive advantage we’ll gain against the Chinese will make us the envy of every industrialized nation. The pollution masks we’ll design for our children will be way better than the ones they wear in Beijing.
America will indeed be great again. We just won’t be able to breathe.
Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
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