by Mitch Troutman
Yesterday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced he was giving away one million dollars to the Blaschak Corporation, who’s opening a large new strip mine near Mount Carmel and Centralia. Wolf, a Democrat, is using the same playbook Congress used when they bailed out the banks in 2008: give loads of money to the rich, and it will trickle down to the rest of us.
These policies have been proven wrong time and time again. We’re out of the “jobless recovery” — the economy is doing great, on paper. It’s just not great for working class people, who are still living in a recession.
Wolf is praised for being a “businessman,” but this is a bad deal for Pennsylvanians. Since the Great Recession, I’ve been wondering: Why doesn’t the government get shares in these corporations? Why are these handouts rather than loans? Why does it feel like a direct deposit from the state budget into some suit’s bank account? Whether tax-abatements or grants, this is no-strings-attached money, with no oversight.
Wolf’s strip mining handout isn’t all bad, though. For one, these are going to be union jobs. That shouldn’t be understated — there’s a lot of shitty places to work in the region, and as much as we could use more jobs, we even more badly need better quality jobs –with good pay, decent conditions, manageable working hours, and job security.
Second, the land is going to be reclaimed. As much fun as I have out in the “strippins,” abandoned strip mines are poisonous to our local environment. Don’t be mislead, though: reclamation has been the law since 1977. Wolf shouldn’t get any credit for it. The Blaschak Corporation has to do it, just like anyone else who digs a strip mine or quarry.
Here’s my alternative. That was a million dollars that could have been put into something we all benefit from, like textbooks, or more teachers so we can lower the size of overcrowded classrooms. It could be put to reclamation of abandoned mines, put towards fixing subsidence, towards reclaiming poisoned coal creeks. There is no lack of things we desperately need that would benefit the public.
Next, tax exemptions should be revoked. When companies don’t pay taxes, they aren’t funding schools for their employees’ children; they aren’t funding the roads their trucks run on; they aren’t funding the infrastructure they rely on. We’re the ones who have to deal with it crumbling when the budget comes up short, while they make the profits. Sure, these companies make occasional donations to charity to make themselves look good, and that money is always needed, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they are not giving back. The money that would pour in if we revoked tax exemptions would make one million dollars look like pennies. We’d have plenty to work with to improve our public institutions and infrastructure.
Finally, we need more union jobs. We can do that using Wolf’s strategy — give rich people money and import jobs that are already unionized — or we can organize the industrial parks — a strategy we could call “economic recovery from below.” The coal region would be a better place to live if we forced companies to treat and pay their workers better. More money could circulate in local economies and revive our downtowns, to pay local construction workers to repair our homes. More time for parents to spend with children. Less school children working night-shift warehouse jobs to support their families.
Let’s circle back to another question, though: why did Wolf, a Democrat, pick coal? Maybe Wolf wants it on his resume when he runs for higher office, or maybe it’s just a push to make the Democratic Party seem pro-coal after Trump successfully used coal against them. Either way, the truth is Democrats could do twice as much for the coal industry as the Republicans and their efforts would just be written off as political performance. “Wolf Digs Coal.” Don’t expect that line to catch on. Of course, Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric is just as much of a performance, too. Though coal mining jobs have gone up slightly since his election, he’s also cut safety regulations causing coal mining fatalities to increase. But Democrats keep running with this idea that they are going to peel away Republican votes, no matter how many times it fails. We don’t need “Republican Lite,” we need a party that stands up for regular people in word and in deed.
It’s a tough truth to face, but coal is not the future of our region. The few anthracite-burning power plants are shutting down. Hardly anyone is using coal for home heat outside of our little patch towns, and even here, many of us are on electric or oil. Much of today’s anthracite is made into high-carbon products like graphite or activated carbon (water filters). The high-carbon market isn’t going away, but don’t expect it to boom.
Of course, government could subsidize coal to the point where it is competitive with other fuels. Let’s be honest, though — the environment can’t take it. Yes, we’re proud that anthracite is cleaner than other coal, but we can’t lie to ourselves and call it “clean coal.” Not by the soot on our houses, the silica in old miners’ lungs, or the dark, barren mountains that dwarf our towns. Call me a hippie if you want, but our climate is getting worse. The 2018 floods were as bad as 2011. California is seeing the worst fires in its history and a few more years of this will singe it off the map. If we mine anthracite at our current pace, there will still be a few coal miners two generations from now. If we manage to turn it back into the industry it once was, the only thing we’ll be doing for work two generations from now is picking scraps out of landfills to survive. We need to invest in energy of the future, and we need to curb excessive energy usage today.
We also can’t continue paying tribute to corporations and hoping that they will save us. If they want a million dollars from the state government, tell them to play the lottery like everyone else.
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Coal companies have a sufficiently erratic record at “reclamation” you needn’t be a cynic to not believe it will happen until it does. Maybe Wolf has a record at this that will inspire confidence… or not.