ABINGDON, Va. --
Betty and Denver Johnson’s two children, ages 13 and 7, wanted to name their baby brother after the industry their daddy works in.
So, Emory Daniel Coal Johnson was born.
“This brother and sister wanted to name him coal like a little lump of coal,” Betty Johnson, of Cleveland,Va., said of her youngest son.
For the Johnsons and many families throughout Southwest Virginia, coal mining isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life. And many believe that way of life is being threatened by federal regulations that crack down on the industry.
More than 2,000 coal miners, friends of coal and mostly-Republican political speakers came together Saturday afternoon at the Washington County, Va., Fairgrounds to support the industry and speak out against Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Folks at the Rally for Appalachian Coal, sponsored by the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security, represented four states – Virginia, Tennessee,Kentucky and West Virginia.
Most of them had the same message: Deregulate policies that restrict coal mining.
“The problem we’ve got is, if it’s enacted by Congress and becomes law, we adapt to it,” said Don Gibson, a coal miner from Hazard, Ky. “What they’re doing in the EPA is, midstream they change the rules. You can’t work like that.”
Others talked about the EPA’s recent proposal to enforce stricter carbon dioxide emissions laws, which could ultimately make some coal-fired power plants cut emissions in half to more closely match those of natural gas-fired plants.
“I represent Tennessee but we have coal mines in Tennessee, too, and there has been a concerted effort in the last few years among environmentalists to shut down coal mines in Tennessee,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “We know there’s 200 years of coal in the ground we can use.”
‘Blessed with resources’
The country needs to be ‘unleashing’ its energy power, U.S. Senate hopeful George Allen, R-Mount Vernon, told the crowd. “We are blessed with the most energy resources than any country in the world. If we unleash our American energy resources from the coalfields of Appalachia to the Rockies to the coast, we’d have hundreds of jobs … an industrial renaissance.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Richmond, wasn’t at the rally, but sent a staffer with a message for the assembled crowd.
“We’re indeed fortunate to have so many mines as part of Virginia’s heritage,” Warner said in the message. “America must invest in research and develop new technologies … to continue to use our domestic resources such as coal.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Richmond, said the rally was an “incredible” event that brought together leaders from four states.
“We are the most coal-rich country in the world, and the more we talk about American energy and independence, we need to talk about coal,” he said. “It’s terrific to have people here from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee to show support for coal.”
And to the crowd, he said: “Wouldn’t it be great if Americans could work like this every day, rallying around an issue like coal? When Washington gets heavy-handed, we’re going to stand up and say, ‘That’s wrong.’”
The event gave people there a voice, said state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Independence.
“This is the type of rally that brings all the people together,” he said. “I’ve always said we have a huge voice on the environmental side. There’s an alternate voice – people want to mine the coal and we can do it safely. It’s time people listen to them.”
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said the rally puts “a face on coal.”
“The face of coal includes the guy who sells the car to the guy who works for the coal industry,” he said. “The face of coal is the person who works at the restaurant who served food to the guy who sells the car to the guy who works for the coal industry.”
Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, R-Mechanicsville, who is running for governor in 2013, said he is a face of coal.
“When I was 9 years old, my dad went to work … in a surface mine,” he said. “I saw my dad getting up … every day to go to the coal mines and coming back covered in coal from the tip of his toes to his neck. I know what a hard job it is.”
Many families in the region know what a hard job coal mining is.
Ricky Rose, of Raven, Va., is a former coal miner, and his son, Eric, is currently looking for a job in the industry.
“[EPA regulations] are making it harder and harder for people in my generation to get a job,” Eric Rose said. “And that’s [the mines] what’s here. They’re forcing people out. And businesses here, they get the money from the mines, it’s a domino effect.”
Ricky Rose called the EPA a “joke,” and said he’s worried about miners finding jobs.
“It’s going to be a long, hard road,” he said.
Tim Asbury, a miner from Tazewell, Va., said he worries on a daily basis if his job will be there. Like many miners, he has family members who also work in the mines.
“This is everything,” he said of coal. “This is how we live. If you go to work and there’s no job, there’s no nothing.”
He has two young sons, and said although he will support whatever they do, he hopes they’ll choose college over going into the mines.
Asbury said he’s not sure what the EPA regulations might mean to him, but it’s something he worries about.
“I think it’s bad because you don’t ever know,” he said. “[The industry has] had its ups and downs but this time, it seems bad for everybody.”
He got into mining because of the pay, which he said is good, but workers are compensated for their risks.
“You earn what you make,” he said. “It’s a dangerous job.”
Betty Johnson said she’s not sure if the risk is worth the pay for her husband, who goes down into the mine near their home. Her father and his father both were miners.
And, Denver Johnson said, if coal mining is shut down, it could wipe out the town where they live.
“They’re trying to shut coal down,” he said. “They don’t want you to dig it … and that’s all SouthwestVirginia is.”
Workers from other industries turned out to support coal, too.
“A lot of my family is coal miners and railroad people,” said Noah Tickle, of Roanoke, Va. “I spent 41 years with Norfolk Southern. Without coal there is no railroad; without the railroad there is no coal. The two go together.”
Tickle’s friend, Sandy Newman, of Roanoke, also isn’t a miner but supports the coal movement.
“I just think it’s a shame what our government is doing to coal,” Newman said.
And, said Tazewell County Supervisor Seth White, coal mines are integral to the area.
“If the EPA agenda continues, you’re going to see the place dry up,” he said.
If coal mines in Eastern Kentucky were shut down, all that would be left would be ghost towns, said Haven King, president of Coal Mining Our Future.
“When you shut down the coal industry, you’re affecting the future of mom and pop stores,” he said. “Any kind of business, they’re feeling the hit.”
The Republican speakers at the rally – many on the campaign trail – said they hope to change EPA legislation however they can.
“We’re in court with the EPA over their first attack on coal, which is illegal,” said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, R-Richmond, who is seeking the governor’s office in 2013. “Let’s face it, when the EPA goes to work in the morning, opportunity is not in their mind. They have put their crosshairs on this region whose main industry is coal.”
The politicians said coal brings sorely need jobs.
“Folks, coal means jobs,” Allen said. “It means jobs not just for the coal miners but for the businesses in various communities where coal is doing well. People have good paying jobs and the businesses do well.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, also said jobs are important.
“Coal creates jobs,” he said. “The number one thing you need in this economy is jobs. We have … years of coal in this country. Why are we not using it?”
Bolling said coal jobs help power the country.
“I remember [my dad would] always say he had a job that powered America,” Bolling said. “The truth is energy doesn’t work without a strong and vibrant coal industry.”