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Herb Rothschild Jr.: We have choices

Hillary Clinton’s big loss to Bernie Sanders in the West Virginia primary may have been due to a single soundbite. At a CNN town hall on March 13 she said, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Ripped out of context, that statement circulated widely in the run-up to election day, and her efforts to set the record straight failed.

In truth, her words were embedded in a promise not to forget those whose livelihoods will be affected by the switch to clean energy. “Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.” On that occasion Clinton was being decent and caring. But what she didn’t do — and it might have helped her recover from her misstep — is condemn mountaintop removal coal mining.

Politicians sympathetic to big business don’t take such stands. Neither do corporate media. On May 10, the day of the primary, the Mail Tribune gave its editorial space to Bloomberg View. The piece noted that employment in the coal industry has been declining for years for three reasons: cheap natural gas from fracking, stricter federal regulations on emissions from coal-fired generating plants, and “better technology” that has allowed the industry “to dramatically expand its use of machinery.” The next day the New York Times ran a piece that made exactly those points. It used the phrase “increased mechanization of mining.”

Neither Bloomberg View nor the Times used the term “mountaintop removal.” The so-called “better technology” is the use of open pit machinery for environmental rape. Instead of sinking mine shafts and bringing the coal to the surface, the companies start at the top and uncover the seams with giant earth removers. Then they just scrape up the coal and load it onto trucks. To see the result, go to http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/hobet.php and watch from a NASA satellite the development of the Hobet mine from 1984 to 2015. Forests and mountains disappear into valleys and streams.

The Obama administration used the Clean Water Act to force coal companies to mitigate the damage, but it allowed the Corps of Engineers to keep issuing permits. In the February 2010 issue of Science, a team of scientists who had reviewed the research on mountaintop mining concluded that its impacts on stream and groundwater quality, biodiversity and forest productivity were "pervasive and irreversible," and that current strategies for mitigation and restoration weren’t halting the devastation.

When Clinton was asked about mountaintop removal mining on West Virginia public radio in 2008, she said, “I think it’s a difficult question because of the conflict between the economic and environmental tradeoff.” But the economic benefits went to the energy companies, not the miners.

Like Clinton, Sanders has called for economic investment in ailing Appalachian communities. But he has also called for a ban on mountaintop removal mining. There in a nutshell is the difference between the two candidates. Both are decent people, but Clinton’s decency is compromised by her commitment to corporate America. As for Donald Trump, he’s devoid of decency. Donning a miner’s hat for a speech in West Virginia, he dismissed all efforts to regulate coal mining and applauded the “Trump digs coal” signs in the audience.

We have choices.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.