In Coal Country, Skepticism, Worries Over New Carbon Rule

  • Clyde Settie, a coal miner in Greene County, Pennsylvania, understands the purpose of trying to limit carbon dioxide emissions, but thinks it will cost local jobs. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

June 5, 2014

Blair Zimmerman worked 40 years in the coal industry. Now, he’s a commissioner for Greene County in the heart of coal country. So he watched intently as EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced the new carbon rules.

Zimmerman is a Democrat, he supported President Obama. He’s not what you would call an EPA-basher.

“I have three grandsons,” he said. “So I have mixed feelings. Even though I worked in the industry almost 41 years, the two most important things in our lifetime—in everyone’s lifetime—is clean air and clean water.

He did like some of what McCarthy said. Like the ability of states to come up with their own carbon reduction plans. But he worries about mines closing, and what the industry means to his community.

“Probably billions of dollars it brings to this community, this county, [in] employment, taxes, services. You shut down the mines in a county [with a] population of only 38,000—what do we do?”

It’s a question many in the community may face in the next few years. One in five jobs in Greene County are related to the coal industry, according to census numbers. And those jobs could be threatened: By the EPA’s own calculations, Appalachian coal production could decline by more than 30 percent under the new rule.

Clyde Settie took the news in stride as he sat down to a cheeseburger at Hot Rod’s House of Barbecue in Waynesburg.

Settie has been working in the coalfields since he was 18 years old.

“I didn’t go to college, didn’t want to go to the military. My dad was a coal miner, my brother was a coal miner,” he said.

He was eating before his afternoon shift working 1,800 feet underground at a mine run by Consol Energy. He’s not surprised the EPA is trying to cut down on carbon emissions. He, too, thinks that the climate is changing.

“I can understand [the regulation],” he said. “But you’re going to cost a lot of people a lot of jobs—not only the coal mining jobs but all the other jobs that are affiliated with it. It’s a sad situation, but you know, the saying goes, 'You don’t fight city hall.'”

Settie didn’t agree with the EPA’s claim that the rule would create jobs in cleaner technologies—like renewables and energy efficiency—at least not in Greene County.

“They can say it’s going to create new jobs but if they don’t train people, I don’t see it happening because this is a fairly depressed area,” he said. “There’s a lot of food service jobs here, and jobs like that, but there’s no big industry to take care of all the jobs people are going to lose over this.”

Christina Simeone of PennFuture, an environmental group that supports the carbon limits, says she thinks there needs to be more effort to help people in coal communities as these new rules are implemented.

“These are real people who are just trying to make a living and they’re seeing major changes happening and that has to be a very scary reality. But what are we really doing to help these people out?” she said. “That’s I think is what is really missing here.”

One possible option for some is the booming natural gas industry. But that industry is relatively new. Coal has been providing for families here for decades. 

Autumn Laskody runs a beauty parlor in Waynesburg. She said many of her clients have husbands who work in the mines. If they lose their jobs, businesses like hers will suffer.

“When it comes between getting your hair colored or buying milk bread or gasoline for your family, certainly you’re going to buy the milk, bread or gasoline,” she said, as she applied hair color to a woman’s hair. 

Laskody said her main worry was that her community will be asked to bear the brunt of the global climate problem.