A coal miner memorial in Benham, Kentucky. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Groups working to support out-of-work coal miners and their communities are trying to accelerate their strategies.

As COVID-19 erupted into a pandemic, the National Mining Association wrote a plea to President Donald Trump in March for relief from a federal tax that funds black lung treatment for coal miners. 

The letter weighed mere ounces but landed like a house-size boulder in Appalachian coal country.

Instead of being crushed by that news, however, officers of 12 Black Lung Association chapters in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia coalesced. They crafted a counter response asking congressional leaders to extend the black lung excise tax to help ex-miners afflicted with the incurable disease and prompt the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to establish emergency standards to protect working miners.

“We sacrificed our lungs and our health to feed our families and power America,” they wrote in a two-page April letter. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a new hazard that threatens our health and the health of working miners. We urge you to protect mine workers, protect the black lung excise tax … and to provide support for our local businesses, and our hard-working families, neighbors, and friends.”

To Appalachian Voices organizer Willie Dodson, that joint endeavor is just a sliver of continuing solidarity as communities reliant on resource extraction for the last century pivoted to digital channels to press for a diverse — and healthier — economic future.

Refusing to give up because of physical distancing restrictions, the officers united via telephone and social media.

“They are shouting out, ‘We need justice, we need health care and we need benefits,’” said Dodson, the advocacy group’s Central Appalachian field coordinator, based in Norton, Virginia. “Maybe they’re getting overshadowed by the National Mining Association, but that doesn’t stop their determination and their right to be here.”

If anything, the novel coronavirus has accelerated the demise of coal that began with competition from natural gas and, now, cheaper renewable energy. Upward of 300 coal-fired power plants have been phased out in the last decade. Fear of the disease prompted owners to shut down some Appalachian mines, at least temporarily, in March.

This year, coal production is expected to slump 22% from 2019 — and that’s on top of an almost 30% drop between 2014 and 2019, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

Appalachian Voices and other organizations already on the ground to help fossil fuel-reliant communities find their footing are now doubling down on those efforts.

“This economic crisis has made it quite evident that this work is more urgent than ever,” said Heidi Binko, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based executive director of the Just Transition Fund. “It has lit a fire under our team.”

Beyond coal, to oil and gas?

Just Transition Fund began five years ago with backing from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Appalachian Funders Network and half a dozen other national and regional foundation partners. The organization is also a supporter of the Energy News Network.

Foundations and other donors to the Energy News Network have no oversight or input into the editorial process and may not influence stories. More about our relationship with funders can be found in our code of ethics.

In short, the nonprofit seeks to strengthen and broaden local economies by incorporating solutions that build resilience and are equitable, inclusive and low-carbon. While that strategy hasn’t changed, the devastation wrought by the speed of economic decline adds an extra challenge.

“Places like Appalachia hadn’t even recovered from the 2008 recession, and now we’re layering on this pandemic distress,” Binko said. “With more and more mine closures, communities have less time to prepare. The need for resources and support for transition plans is now more urgent than ever.”

From Colstrip, Montana, to Appalachia to Tonawanda, New York, Binko’s nonprofit is providing investments and technical expertise to communities in 13 states tackling projects as diverse as expanding broadband access, coordinating the growth of renewable energy, reinventing an industrial waterfront and training fossil fuel workers for new jobs that pay enough to support families.

Binko emphasizes that Just Transition Fund staffers only intervene in places where they are either funding local nonprofits or have been invited.

“Most of the communities we help are rural, often marginalized populations experiencing economic distress,” she said. “We can’t be everywhere, but we’re asking how we can provide more help so places don’t fall further and further behind.”

For instance, the fund has issued emergency relief to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, where inequality has been compounded by the devastating impact of the coronavirus. As well, grantees can apply for its “rapid response fund,” launched in 2017 to give communities quick access to money when a sudden threat or opportunity emerges.

Binko co-founded the Just Transition Fund in tandem with an endeavor by the Obama administration. The POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative provided the first-ever funding to communities and workers affected by job losses in coal mining, coal-fired power plants and coal-related supply chain industries.

She is hopeful that her staff can help to link communities in need to federal dollars Congress has made available through legislation such as the CARES Act.  

“We do a lot with a little,” she said about her philosophy of investing wisely. “And we’ve learned a lot in the last five years.”

That knowledge would be invaluable if the fund expands its reach beyond coal into towns, cities and counties gut-punched by the sinking oil and gas energy sector.

“To start, we focused on coal because the industry was in such a different place,” she said. “But it was always in our long-term plans to apply what we learned to communities reliant on oil and gas. At the end of the day, they are all about economic adjustments.”

‘Abandon fossil fuels, not fossil fuel workers’

In early May, Bloomberg reported that publicly traded coal mining companies had received more than $31 million in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has called on federal legislators to use upcoming economic stimulus packages to help fossil fuel workers and industry-dependent communities by providing both immediate relief and support for transitioning into new economies.

“Over centuries, the coal, oil, and gas sectors have created high-paying jobs in communities whose economies and cultures have become closely tied to fossil fuel extraction,” NRDC’s green finance fellow Bettina Bergöö wrote in an April blog post. “In return, workers have endured conditions that are life-threatening on the job and years later.” 

Transition assistance for workers should include funding for wage replacement, housing help, health insurance coverage, pension support and retraining for jobs with comparable compensation, she said.

For communities, financial support should translate to tax revenue replacement, funding for transition planning, grants and loans for small businesses, workforce development assistance and money to manage legacy harms of fossil fuels.

“This ongoing cycle of exploitation has contributed to population decline and lack of investment by other sectors,” Bergöö wrote. “It has never been and will never be sustainable. 

She spelled out five specific funding sources. Her top two priorities direct Congress to extend the black lung excise tax for 10 years and to expedite the use of existing funds in the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund to stimulate economic development on those properties. 

The latter, folded into legislation abbreviated as the RECLAIM Act, is still stymied on Capitol Hill. It’s short for the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act.

“The pandemic makes the excise tax issue more urgent because miners with black lung disease are so vulnerable to COVID-19,” Dodson said. “And it would be difficult to control its spread if it got into the mines.”  

Congress takes a piecemeal approach

For the last two years, Congress has been reluctant to authorize a long-term extension of the black lung excise tax, despite a 21st-century resurgence of a disease also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

At the end of 2019, Congress restored the tax rate to $1.10 per ton of coal mined underground and 50 cents per ton for surface mines. Those rates will be more than halved in 2021 unless Congress acts this year.

The National Mining Association wants the excise tax to be sliced in half immediately as beleaguered coal companies grapple with the complications of COVID-19.

Initially mandated in 1977, the excise tax paid by coal companies is designated for what’s known as the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. It was designed as a safety net to provide healthcare and disability benefits for miners.

In 2008, when Congress last green-lighted a 10-year extension of the higher excise tax rates, evidence of an increase in black lung disease had not been noticed and payments from the trust fund had declined.

Now, however, the fund provides medical benefits to roughly 25,000 miners and their families who count on it as a safety net because so many coal companies that employed them have gone bankrupt. The fund will be on the verge of insolvency if payments aren’t increased or stabilized, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report.

The fatal disease afflicts one in five coal miners who has spent at least 25 years underground in Central Appalachia, according to recent studies from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. What amounts to a doubling of the disease since 2000 has shocked those who had watched diagnoses taper off after the federal government instituted mine safety regulations in 1969.

“It’s not the miners’ fault that they got black lung, it’s the coal companies’ fault,” said Jimmy Moore, president of the National Black Lung Association, who spearheaded the April letter. “We went into the mines to make a living and try to exist. They ought to protect us.”

Moore is a retired miner whose son is sick with the disease. Before the coronavirus erupted, the elder Moore traveled to Washington regularly from his home in Pike County to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, to back the RECLAIM Act. 

The measure has already garnered support from miners and their families, social justice nonprofits, local government leaders and just transition advocates. 

It calls for distributing $1 billion over five years among coal states nationwide to spur enterprise by reinventing played-out mines as agricultural, energy, industrial and tourism enterprises.

The money is readily available because it’s connected with another 1977 congressional mandate requiring coal companies to pay into the federal Abandoned Mine Lands Fund for each ton extracted. It was designed to address pre-1977 abandoned minelands that were neglected or inadequately restored. 

‘We might be finding new allies’

The spread of the coronavirus has jarred multitudes of more-comfortable Americans by exposing deep and long-festering fissures between the haves and have-nots that organizers in Appalachia’s coal country have tried to address for decades.

“We might be finding new allies,” said Rebecca Shelton of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “More people are realizing what’s broken about how our economy is structured.”

With pandemic-related jobless claims soaring beyond 37 million nationwide  since March, it has exposed how precarious daily existence has become for so many families everywhere.

“This has been happening for years in coal communities, without any extra support,” she said. “Now, it’s a familiar experience across a lot of different places.” 

By penning that joint letter to Congress, Moore and the Black Lung Association chapters were sending their consistent message that you can’t forget about the people when coal companies are hiding behind the coronavirus to wriggle out of an obligation, said Shelton, the law center’s coordinator of policy and organizing.

“That is a narrative you hear during this COVID-19 crisis, families and people first,” she said.

Chelsea Barnes, a colleague of Dodson’s at Appalachian Voices in Norton, said the pandemic has highlighted the necessity of resilience in coal country and beyond.

“I’m hoping this shows people that no community is immune from these types of crises,” she said about the lengthy, slow hollowing out of Appalachia. “Maybe they’ll have a little more empathy for what we’re going through down here.

“Circumstances beyond any individual’s control keep them from being economically stable,” she said, countering the oft-cited trope about people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. “We struggle with this as a country.”

Transitions are complicated because they involve physical and cultural changes, said Barnes, her nonprofit’s new economy program manager. Government investments at the state and federal level are crucial.

Infrastructure such as broadband, roads, electricity and clean water are the foundation that has to be coupled with attracting new businesses, connecting the local workforce to jobs and cleaning up coal mines, coal ash impoundments, power plants and other environmental liabilities.

“When we say transitioning, it means not doing more harm than good,” Barnes said about prioritizing equality, inclusiveness and human health. “Providing a new economy doesn’t mean more of the same.”

It’s also not about attracting more extractive or polluting industries that will leave in 10 years.

Binko, head of the Just Transition Fund, said more philanthropists, local governments and people from the private sector are showing interest in engaging with the cause.

“We’ve supported and been a part of some excellent transition stories, so we know there’s a path forward,” she said, noting that she remains optimistic even with the pandemic’s repercussions looming as a gloomy backdrop.

“It’s not like we just started to address this problem today. We have the structure in place and that gives us a leg up.”

Listen to the residents

One of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center’s founding tenets in 2002 was assuring that miners were heard while keeping the coal industry accountable and communities safe.

“It’s critical that people have a voice at the table about the economic future of their community,” Shelton said. “Policies in Washington should not be entirely disconnected. People should have a chance to offer input.”

That’s exactly right, Dodson agreed.

The Appalachian Voices organizer is adamant that residents be the fount of transition ideas and solutions because politicians or staffers at nongovernmental organizations are more suited for facilitating. 

It’s not as if communities across Central Appalachia are in suspended animation and being acted upon, he said. People are coming together and organizing to improve their prospects.

“I spend a lot of my time listening because I want to know what kind of vision people have for the future,” he said. “People here have a tremendous amount of knowledge that they don’t think they have because nobody listened.”

Dodson compares that emergence to his observations during springtime hikes where nonindigenous plant species have coated the forest floor. With some diligent clearing of non-natives and the right light and rain, however, dormant bloodroot, spring beauties and Solomon’s seal can bloom into a diverse, healthy ecosystem.  

“That’s what can happen here. The native seed bank is already in there,” he said. “As organizers, we’re just trying to bring the water and the sun.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.