Last Union Mine (copy)

In this 2014 file photo, coal miners return on a buggy after working a shift underground at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Ky. As recently as the late 1970s, there were more than 350 mines operating at any given time in Harlan County. In 2014, it was around 40. 

A recent headline on the front page of the La Crosse Tribune read, “EPA defies climate warnings." The federal government, we learn in the article, has made a devastatingly dangerous decision to loosen environmental restraints on coal-burning. President Donald Trump has given the Environmental Protection Agency a new mission: promoting corporate profit-making by allowing increased worker deaths and environmental destruction.

It’s a deathtrap to send men — and increasingly women — down into the mines. Trump’s own EPA estimates, very much on the low side, that its new rules will cause 300 to 1,500 additional deaths annually. Environmental analyst Richard Martin, author of the 2015 book “Coal Wars," puts the 2015 worldwide death toll from coal mining in the thousands, with accidents, emphysema, black lung and coal industry-produced air and water pollution all factors.

Nowhere is this clearer than in eastern Kentucky’s Harlan County. An area with a history of prolonged armed violence between owners and miners as they battled for less dangerous working conditions and better pay, it continues to take lives through lethal mining accidents and toxic environmental degradation. Harlan County today has a life expectancy that’s in America’s bottom 1 percent.

Watch this video. You’ll find Kentucky-born Patty Loveless, whose coal-mining father died battling black lung disease, singing Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” You’ll see the faces of coal country. You’ll hear Loveless, her gorgeous Appalachian-inflected voice echoing eerily as if she were trapped in a mine, deliver the coal miner’s heart-wrenching plaint: “You spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave.”

Life-threatening coal extraction continues. In 2010, 29 miners died in the devastating West Virginia Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. Massey Energy’s CEO, Don Blankenship, was convicted of “conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.” He served just one year in prison, and then in 2018, one year after his release, he ran in the West Virginia U.S. Senate primary as a Republican.

Coal country needs our compassion. Workers there need federal dollars to support education and innovation to transform their economy. In 2013, the Obama administration’s Labor Department awarded a $5.2 million grant to eastern Kentucky’s Project HOME (Hiring Our Miners Everyday). Now, the federal government works to send miners back into the mines, and feeds itself politically by stirring resentment against Obama, regulation and government.

Kentucky Sen. and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holds the highest constituent “unfavorable” rating of any American senator. Republican corporate campaign donors, however, love him; the nearly $31 million fund that he and pro-McConnell PACs have raised since 2013 makes it very difficult for Kentuckians to vote him out.

In 2014, McConnell declared that he didn't know if climate change is a real problem, saying he's "not a scientist". Despite report after scientific report sounding the alarm, he clings to science denial, and slams the door on the possibility of desperately-needed Senate hearings on how we might prevent looming environmental disaster.

Last November, President Trump was handed the Fourth National Climate Assessment, prepared by his own agency heads. It makes clear the enormous price that climate change is costing us in damage to infrastructure, deteriorating social systems and ecosystems, and losses in the quality and quantity of usable water and edible food.

Trump, who never seems to meet a reality powerful enough to pull him out of his greed-fueled imagination, angrily rejected the science: “I don’t believe it.”

The skies are indeed crying. Choked with fossil fuel emissions, they throw floods of tears on us with the accumulated water sent upward by heat-driven ice melts. Yet coal extracting, coal burning and carbon-based fossil fuel emissions are being increased instead of decreased by our federal government.

Said writer Ron Eller: “Appalachia’s problems are not those of Appalachia alone. We are all Appalachians.”

Richard Martin, in his prologue to “Coal Wars," said he wrote the book to call our attention to the enormous casualties of coal, adding that the human toll will only continue to rise unless something is done.

We have to tell those in power that the lives and living conditions of us all are worth far more than profits and campaign donations for the few.

Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist and freelance writer who lives in La Crosse. He can be reached at

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