Soundbites: The Trouble in Post-Coal Communities

In this podcast, the Northern Plains Resource Council's Teresa Erikson discusses the declining coal industry's impact on communities once dependent on their success.

This is Toni Johnson with Soundbites. I’m here today with Teresa Erikson of the Northern Plains Resource Council based in Billings, Montana.

We’re here today to discuss the closure of power plants and coal mining companies and what it means for workers. Hi Teresa.

Hi Toni

Teresa can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do and how you got involved with some of these mining closures and what it means for workers?

Our organization started 44 years ago, was organized by ranchers who were very concerned about what strip mining would do to agriculture, to farming and to ranching. So we’re very deeply rooted in agriculture. We organize Montana family farms and ranches to protect water quality and to protect family agriculture; that’s our mission. It’s a natural evolution that we’re involved when strip mining was booming, that we’re involved now that mining is starting to bust. Coal is on the downside cycle.

Some people, when they think about coal in particular they think about the Appalachian region on the east coast but I don’t think a lot of people know that Wyoming is probably one of the biggest sources of coal production in the nation. Can you talk a little bit about the role that mining has played in the region? And also, we were talking earlier, and you mentioned that a lot of these workers, as these mine companies start to go into bankruptcy proceedings aren’t unionized, are facing a number of issues including lost wages and lost benefits. How is this playing out and what kind of steps might they take?

I think it is a little known fact that Montana actually has the most coal of any state in the nation, about 25 percent of all the coal in the United States. It just happens that not all of it is minable but we are very much a natural resource state. Wyoming is the largest coal producer in the United States so the Powder River Basin is what the area is known as.

Our two states, Montana and Wyoming, are quite different in that, in the bankruptcy proceedings so far, no existing coal mine has gone bankrupt in Montana yet. But a proposed coal mine owned by Arch Coal is now off the books, it’s been cancelled. It was a promise of jobs and prosperity and it never came to fruition because Arch Coal went bankrupt.

In Wyoming however there’s been three huge coal mines, well two that have gone through bankruptcy and the third that is about to go, so that’s Alpha Resources, Arch Coal and now Peabody is on the brink of going bankrupt. And another difference between Wyoming and Montana is that in Montana most of the coal mines are unionized where as in Wyoming none of the coal mines are unionized.  I know that many environmental groups are jumping for joy at the idea that coal is going bankrupt but there is a swath of devastation that happens in any bankruptcy.

It’s actually in our self-interest to have coal mines be healthy because they can reclaim. In Wyoming there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of areas that have been strip mined. There is no money to reclaim them because the coal companies self-bonded. The state of Wyoming allows self-bonding, the state of Montana does not. For example, in both Alpha Natural Resources and in Arch’s cases they made a deal with the state of Wyoming to only make good on essentially between 17 percent and 15 percent of their reclamation bonds. And reclamation jobs could keep these unemployed miners busy and working for a very long time, if the state of Wyoming had had the foresight to require performance bonds in the form of cash or securities. And instead they just allowed companies to post their stock basically, and now their stock is worth practically nothing, it’s really a tragedy.

I know that many environmental groups are jumping for joy at the idea that coal is going bankrupt but there is a swath of devastation that happens in any bankruptcy.

In Wyoming one of the big problems to is that they’re non-union so that the workers don’t have anyone that would represent them and now bankruptcy courts are ruthless. They’re raiding the pension funds, the health funds and so the workers are really going to be left in the lurch and there isn’t anyone to speak with them because they were non-union. We should be concerned about that because a lot of people are going to be out of work and really, out of luck and potentially heading into poverty.

We’re here on the sidelines of the Just Transition Conference which is focused on transitioning communities into a different economic set whether they’re fossil fuel dependent communities or whether they’re workers who need to be retrained. How did you get involved with the transition space and what do you see as opportunities and what do you see as challenges? 

Well, as an organizer, and I consider myself a community organizer, one of the rules of course is if you’re against something than you have to be for something else. That’s a natural pathway into transition issues and really we’re more about developing a new economy and not just just transition. I mean just transition is a process to an end goal and the end goal should be developing a whole new economy.

The bright side of it is, as the speaker earlier said today in the conference that the environmental movement is really driving the market forces of solar and wind and energy efficiency. There is so much opportunity there. There is also opportunity in decentralizing industrialized agriculture because we’re in a state, both Wyoming and Montana are agricultural states and similar problems exist in industrialized agriculture that exists in centralized energy production. And so the hope is to be much more local, to be more resilient to have more money in our economies because had our towns that have mines and power plants been more diverse they would not be suffering the way they are now. So diversifying the economic base is absolutely crucial.

There are a lot of foundations talking about or doing divestment from fossil fuels, some of them are doing investment into other areas. Are there places where you think philanthropic capital or help would be useful? The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have been very instrumental in putting together this group for just transition but what else might we be doing?

I think funding the community organizing that has to take place in order to facilitate all the myriad of relationships that need to be put into place before transition can happen I think is really important. And often community organizing is kind of the last thing to get funded. And so I’m a big believer in it, I’m a community organizer myself and have seen just raw community organizing really make amazing things happen. 

And so that is one thing. And then if there are foundations that are willing to put investment into some of these economic development opportunities. High risk low return investments which I know foundations are more likely to do than a regular investor off the street who wants a quick turn around on profit. I think it can jump-start, and incubate and help a lot of struggling entrepreneurs and opportunities that are going to be starved for capital because they are viewed as risky, but could, with the right amount of nurturing really be successful  and take off.

Terrific. Theresa is there anything else you’d like to say to our audience today?

I guess I would say that none of this is easy. These are long time coming processes, that the solutions are difficult and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. You know, I think sometimes foundations get caught up in the metrics, and by a certain date you need to do certain successes. Which I completely agree on because I agree with accountability, but I think we have to understand that transition is that, it’s gradual and it’s going to take time. We need long-term investments in organizations that do really good work. It’s helpful to have some assurance that funding is going to be there for at least a period of time and not just every single year, kind of struggling and fighting for it. Long-term investments really matter and allow an organization to go beyond what they might normally because they know that there is going to be funding there for them for a while.

Well thank you Teresa for your time. For this is Toni Johnson.

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