With the general election for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat now held by Mitch McConnell more than a year away, we confess to having paid little attention to the flurry of “statements” that seem to arrive daily from McConnell, his Republican primary challenger, Matt Bevins of Louisville, and the expected Democratic Party nominee, current Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
But we just couldn’t ignore the statement that McConnell released this week about the coal industry and its severe decline in eastern Kentucky.
McConnell’s Washington office pumped out a statement on Tuesday about Monday’s announcement by Richmond, Va.-based James River Coal Company that it is laying off 525 coal miners from its McCoy Elkhorn operations in Pike and Floyd counties, its Bledsoe Mining operations in Leslie and Harlan counties, and its Long Branch Surface mine in Laurel County. (According to the James River Coal press release, the furloughs, expected to be temporary, do not affect miners working underground at the company’s Blue Diamond operations in Letcher, Leslie and Perry counties, or those who work above ground at the firm’s massive Leeco surface mine that encompasses the Carcassonne area of Letcher County as well as parts of Knott and Perry counties. That is some good news, at least, for Letcher County and its already-floundering economy,)
Although James River Coal blames the layoffs on “continued weakness in the domestic and international coal markets,” Senator McConnell prefers to ignore the company’s explanation, proclaiming instead that the layoffs are the fault of President Obama and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “Over 500 Kentuckians are now wondering how they’re going to feed their family and pay their bills, as a result of another shut down at Kentucky coal mines,” McConnell says in his release. “The President is leading a war on coal, and what that really means for Kentucky families is a war on jobs. I will continue to fight to defend our coal miners and in the days to come continue my efforts in Washington to help put a stop to Obama’s war on coal.”
Our first reaction upon reading McConnell’s brief statement was disbelief. Did these shallow words really come from the mouth of the Minority Leader of the United States Senate, the second most powerful Republican in Washington? Why is this man not promising to do all he can as one of the most powerful men in the free world to make sure these 525 miners receive unemployment benefits for as long as necessary until they can get back on their feet? Why isn’t this senator, who wields an unbelievable amount of power, pledging to put his very considerable resources to work to make sure that all federal help available — financial or otherwise — finds its way without any hassle to these newly jobless miners and their families and the 6,000 or so other out-of-work miners who are now suffering through no fault of their own?
Allowing ourselves to think positively for a moment, we then considered the possibility that McConnell must have ordered the large staff he enjoys as Senate Minority Leader to get to work on legislation designed to bring new and well-paying jobs to the coal towns in southeastern Kentucky and elsewhere in Central Appalachia that have sacrificed so much over the past 100 years to help fuel the growth — and later the heating and air-conditioning units — of the United States.
No such luck. His record shows that McConnell has never bothered to give any real thought to any of the serious problems eastern Kentucky has faced and continues to face since he took office nearly 30 years ago. His “solution” to the problems now facing the coal industry is simply his latest copout. Instead of offering anything of substance to the people he was elected to serve, McConnell must be hoping that the public is dumb enough to buy his claim that all that ails eastern Kentucky began on January 20, 2009, the day President Obama moved into the White House, and will be cured on January 20, 2017, the day Obama moves out.
If McConnell were truthful with the region’s voters he would admit that, in addition to the serious depletion of recoverable reserves in the state’s oldest coal producing counties such as Letcher and the new availability of unbelievably cheap natural gas supplies, the real reasons for coal’s current prolonged slump date back to 1995 when the first phase the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment kicked in.
The new law required the owners of the nation’s 263 largest and dirtiest coal-fueled power plants to immediately begin reducing emissions of toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide. For many of those biggest and dirtiest plants, the cheapest way to comply with the new law was to burn the low-sulfur, high quality “compliance coal” available in Central Appalachia. While the amendments to the Clean Air Act enabled Letcher and several other counties to enjoy a decade-long boom, the good times were beginning to slow by 2005 — five years after the second phase of the 1990 law kicked in and required the installation and use of scrubbers to help cut sulfur dioxide emissions. As more scrubbers were installed the demand for Central Appalachian coal dwindled. Instead of having to buy the expensive coal mined here, power companies can now burn the higher-sulfur coal that is produced far more cheaply in regions such as the Illinois Basin, which includes western Kentucky, and the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming.
When it comes to looking out for working coal miners, McConnell, the Senate’s eighth most-senior member, has always been more bark than bite since his narrow defeat of the Democratic incumbent, Walter “Dee” Huddleston, in November 1984. In the 29 years since, McConnell has seldom bothered to visit southeastern Kentucky and has done next to nothing when it comes to protecting the health, safety and welfare of working coal miners and their families.
If McConnell truly was concerned about the future of eastern Kentucky he would schedule the first Congressional hearings on the current plight of coal industry and its effect on coalfield residents since his former colleagues, the late Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts and late U.S. Rep. Carl D. Perkins of Hindman, convened a hearing on hunger at Fleming-Neon Elementary School in November 1983, another year in which the coal industry was slumping badly.
That Senator McConnell often speaks loudly but carries a little stick when it comes to guarding the interests of working and disabled coal miners isn’t lost on Secretary of State Grimes.
“For too long, Kentucky has had a senior senator who talks the talk on coal, but refuses to walk the walk,” Secretary Grimes said in her own release on Tuesday. “Despite Senator McConnell’s rhetoric on coal, Kentucky coal jobs have fallen to the lowest number since 1927 under his so-called ‘leadership’ in Washington.”
Let’s be clear. The blame game that Senator McConnell routinely plays is no substitute for real leadership, and by the same token Grimes will have to do a lot more than blame McConnell if she hopes to win strong support in our corner of the commonwealth. But she hasn’t held the levers of national leadership in her hands for 29 years, and he has. In our opinion there’s pathetically little to show for it.
No doubt his pollsters tell him he can’t go wrong by beating up on Obama. But long after Obama leaves the White House, the coal industry will still be in trouble — and meanwhile Mitch McConnell will have done nothing to help miners and their families in eastern Kentucky.