| BEALLSVILLE, Ohio
BEALLSVILLE, Ohio Feb 5 Leon Lieser has been a
coal miner 49 years, his bent fingers testament to his first
job, loading coal by hand into a bucket. Mining also led to a
hip replacement and a knee replacement. He loves his job and his
industry, despite what it has done to his body.
"It's a way of life. It's a proud life," said Lieser, 66.
It may also be doomed. Lieser's boss, Robert Murray, chief
executive of Murray Energy Corp, said he fears for the end of
coal, prodded by a U.S. president who has promoted wind and
solar power while cracking down on emissions from coal-fired
"There are no coal-fired plants being built. Mr. Obama took
care of that. I think we're totally eliminated by 2035," said
Murray, 73, a prominent advocate for his industry and a
fund-raiser for Republican Party causes.
Murray, too, decided to spend his life in the industry, even
with the dangers readily apparent. His father was paralyzed from
the neck down in a mining accident when Murray was 9 years old,
and Murray broke his neck twice in mining accidents during the
16 years he worked underground, before he built the country's
largest privately held coal company.
"I've got a birdcage of titanium and vanadium between
(vertebrae) C2 and C8," said Murray, pulling back his collar to
show a scar running down the back of his neck, the trace of a
While cities such as Pittsburgh, about 75 miles (120
kilometers) to the north, have recovered from the decline of
coal and steel, rural areas such as the Ohio Valley have been
largely left behind. Four or five mines operate in an area that
once had 25, veteran miners say.
Today, Murray works in a gleaming new office building in St.
Clairsville, Ohio, though he periodically drops in on the
Century Mine, tucked behind rolling hills near Beallsville in
eastern Ohio, where he hosted Republican presidential candidate
Mitt Romney for an August campaign event.
He can be affable one moment and erupt with fury the next
over what he called President Barack Obama's attempt to shut
down the coal industry; the president's failure to understand
business; his pandering to environmental radicals; and his
promoting the "hoax" of global warming. The president, he says,
is "destroying America."
"In his inaugural address, which is supposed to be
bipartisan and unite the country, what did he do? He demeaned
and he demonized anyone he thought was his enemy, including all
Republicans," Murray said. "This president does not understand
what he's doing to the lives of these people. I live it every
day. He does not see what he's doing to an entire segment of the
United States economy."
WAR ON COAL?
Coal mining pride is on display in the Ohio Valley now more
than ever, especially since Obama rededicated himself to wind
and solar power in his second inaugural address on Jan. 21.
"Fire Obama" signs still stand in front yards three months after
the election. Miners attach "Stop Obama's war on coal" stickers
to their helmets.
Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency see
coal-fired power plants as a dangerous source of emissions.
(Electricity generation accounts for about 40 percent of U.S.
carbon dioxide emissions, the EPA says, with coal-fired plants
polluting the most.)
To Lieser and Murray, coal brought jobs and wealth to the
Ohio Valley, and they fear Washington will regulate them out of
Murray is lobbying Congress to stop rules including one from
the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) aimed at protecting streams
from the adverse effects of coal mining; a Mine Safety and
Health Administration (MSHA) proposal for stricter requirements
on the dust levels allowed in mines; and EPA rules to reduce
sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
Energy industry experts expect Obama will sidestep Congress
and use executive power to enact his second-term environmental
agenda. By April, they say, the EPA could issue carbon emission
standards for new plants that would effectively prevent new
coal-fired generators from being built. Next would come a more
controversial effort, setting standards for existing plants, a
measure sure to provoke industry lawsuits.
The White House declined to comment for this article, though
Obama outlined his vision on the campaign trail and in the
inaugural address, in which he devoted eight sentences to the
future of green energy.
"The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and
sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition,
we must lead it," he said.
Coal mining has captured imaginations at least since the
Charles Dickens gave voice to the coal miner in his 1850
magazine article "A Coal Miner's Evidence." In modern America,
country music star Loretta Lynn gained fame as "A Coal Miner's
Daughter" through her song and book, later made into a 1980
"Coal miners remember coal mining as a great economic
blessing, but it's hard to think of a more difficult way to make
a living," said Jennifer Haigh, a novelist whose fictional town
of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, was the setting for a novel and a
just-released collection of short stories called "News From
"It seems a little crazy that people remember it so
wistfully," she said. "I suppose the reason is that in a lot of
these places, nothing (else) has come along. A lot of them are
towns that are just sort of frozen."
In the United States, miners represent the fiercely
independent white working class that today is largely Republican
and resentful of government interference in an industry that
brought wealth and development to Appalachia.
"I'm so proud to be part of a tradition of waking at dawn
and working till dark. That pride of being self-reliant," said
Mitch Miracle, 56, a foreman at the Century Mine. "I feel
fortunate to have been part of that for four generations in the
Ohio Valley. It's absolutely heartbreaking to see it taken
A Reuters survey found that almost 100 coal-fired power
plants have closed since 2010. Some 150 others have announced
plans to close before the decade ends.
Coal generated 50 percent of the United States' electricity
in 2005, a figure that fell to 38 percent in 2012, according to
the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Less-polluting
natural gas, more abundant since the gas drilling boom of recent
years, has grown from 19 percent to 30 percent in the same
Murray exported almost 13 percent of his 2012 production but
considers exporting a last resort, given its expenses.
"The export market," he said, "is not a panacea for the
destruction of the coal industry."
"THE EPA'S ON STEROIDS"
Lieser, the longtime coal miner, remembers another
regulatory campaign in the 1980s, when concerns over acid rain
eventually led to a meaty section of Clean Air Act of 1990.
Burning coal releases toxins such as mercury, sulfur dioxide and
nitrogen oxides, the latter two contributing to acid rain.
"They shut down mines and people lost their jobs, houses,"
Lieser said, speaking in a conference room at the Century Mine.
"But this time the EPA's on steroids. This will be Death Valley
if we lose the coal mines here. We won't have anything."
The next day, Lieser was back underground, taking the
Century Mine elevator some 250 feet (75 meters) beneath the
surface. He was overseeing a continuous miner, or CM, the
tunnel-digging piece of heavy equipment that mainly carves out
passageways but also harvests coal.
Modern coal mining has been mechanized for decades,
rendering obsolete the image of soot-smeared miners wielding
picks and shovels (though miners still bear the unmistakable
helmets with lanterns) Today, miners operate computer-driven
hydraulic machinery costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the "longwall" area of main production, shearers slice
off the 1,300-foot-wide (400-meter-wide) face, digging about 30
inches (75 centimeters) deep with each pass, dumping crumbled
coal onto conveyer belts that zip through miles of underground
tunnels before heading up a slope toward the surface.
The miners' lanterns reveal the inside to be not black but a
pale gray. Miners cover every surface with a powder called rock
dust, a fire retardant in case of an explosion.
Coal mining is still dangerous. There were 48 U.S.
coal-mining fatalities in 2010, the year 29 died in an explosion
at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Twenty-one died
in 2011 and 19 last year, according to MSHA.
In a 2007 accident at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine,
half-owned Murray subsidiaries, six miners and three rescue
"There's a certain amount of people who like danger in their
lives, and coal mining's dangerous," Lieser said. "It's not an
occupation for the timid and the weak."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Prudence Crowther and