By Sharon St Joan
On May 19, 2016, in a room in Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace, virtually every seat was taken and of the 750 people there, perhaps 650 were coal workers, bussed in early that morning by Utah’s coal companies to attend the Coal Hearing held by the Department of the Interior and the BLM. This was one of six hearings, held in six cities, all part of the Department of the Interior’s Review of the Federal Coal Program.
On the way to the room, navigating the long, maze-like corridors of the Salt Palace, we had passed men handing out bright yellow t-shirts, with the word “Coal” emblazoned on the front in large letters. Now, there was a sea of rows of yellow shirts at the meeting. Understandably, like most people everywhere, people in the coal industry value their jobs.
It is commonly believed by us, a naïve public, that public lands have been set aside by the U.S. Government to preserve wilderness areas intact, and to protect the wild species that live there. However, industrialization of these lands is not only allowed, it has been prioritized by acts of Congress. This is the real meaning of those signs one sees everywhere on western lands that read, “Land of many uses.” We may think that “many uses” must mean hiking, bird watching, or photography – but no, it actually means drilling for oil, fracking, mining for coal, uranium, potash – and just about anything that can be extracted from under the ground. It is undeniable that coal and other forms of industrialization destroy the land itself, and that their pollution contaminates the whole, surrounding area – the air, the streams, the trees and vegetation, the wildlife and their habitat – yet, the use of public lands in this way is actually prioritized by law.
Forty percent of U.S. coal is extracted from public lands.
At the May 19 hearing, those of us who wished to speak were each allotted three minutes. Many coal workers spoke stressing the value of their jobs to their families and to the community, expressing the feeling that it was a very safe industry. One woman described the stream that ran near her house, in coal country, as being exceptionally clean. They caught the fish that swam there, and ate them. It was “very clean” she said. Another coal worker talked about drinking the water in that area and giving it to his children to drink. Several expressed a wish that their children and grandchildren might also grow up to be coal miners. Coal companies are very adept at fostering a world vision in which there is no climate change and no pollution, one in which great jobs and unending supplies of “clean” coal go on forever and forever.
They do have good paying jobs. We were told that they make an average of $80,000 a year. Many of the coal workers talked about their community service projects, donating and volunteering with little league teams and other sports events. One man said that they love eagles “as much as anybody else,” and that caring for their habitat is part of his job at the coal mine.
Those in opposition to coal on public lands included faith leaders, conservationists, and the concerned general public, as well as a number of scientists and physicians. They spoke, for the most part, about the need to preserve wild lands, about the damaging health effects of pollution, and about the need for a just transition for coal workers to jobs in the fields of clean energy. One woman, a physician, talked in detail about the evidence of unsafe levels of mercury that had been found in the water near coal sites. As she spoke, a ripple of laughter ran through the audience – it seemed not so much unkind laughter, as simply a reaction of disbelief – stemming from simply not accepting the statistics. After all, in the communities in coal country, an alternate view prevails.
During the hearing, no one jeered, no one booed; in fact the ambiance of the meeting was cordial and polite – due in large measure to the skill of the moderator and the tone he set at the beginning, encouraging everyone to “say hello and shake hands with your neighbors.” He offered one or two reminders during the course of the hearing to be respectful of everyone, especially towards those whose who have differing views. Everyone was allowed to speak, uninterrupted.
The Department of the Interior and the BLM will be putting together an overview of coal on public lands, incorporating the views of the public. This will take some time and will be completed within three years. If you live in the U.S., wherever you live, public lands are your lands, and you have an interest in safeguarding them as part of the natural world, preserving their intrinsic beauty, and protecting the magnificent, innocent wild animals who live there. The comment period will end on July 28, 2016.
Please send a comment to
Further information and a sample email will follow soon.
To read the January 14, 2016, New York Times article, In Climate Move, Obama Halts New Coal Mining Leases on Public Land, click here.
To read the Sierra Club’s account of the hearing, click here.
Top photo: Jwanamaker / Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. / This Bighorn was seen just below the summit of Mt. Wheeler in New Mexico.
Second photo: U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest./ Wikimedia Commons / This image is a work of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. / Aspen trees in fall color on the North Kaibab Ranger District.
Fourth photo: LIC Habeeb at ml.wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. / Rock formation in Carbon County, Utah, Antelope Island Echo Ghost Towns.