People are accustomed to environmentalists standing up for what's threatened -- the polar bear, forests encroached upon by development, our waterways. Rightfully so, we see the protection of our nation's land, air, and wildlife as intrinsically linked to our own survival.
As an environmentalist, I'd like to see us add a new endangered species to our list of things worth protecting: American workers -- especially coalminers and those who work in the fossil fuel industries.
Huh? Did I just say that environmentalists should not only care, but do something to protect coalminers? I did.
Last week marked the start of a bankruptcy hearing for Patriot Coal, a company started five years ago by the world's largest coal company, Peabody Coal, along with U.S. giant Arch Coal. These two behemoths -- with annual profits last year surpassing $1 billion -- apparently created Patriot to offload their health care and retirement responsibilities for 2,000 active miners, 10,000 retired miners, and their families. That means that the very people who've sacrificed their health by working a lifetime to power our homes, schools, places of worship, and communities could potentially be forced to go without medical treatment for the life-threatening conditions they contracted on the job.
People like Joe T. Brown. For 32 years, Joe worked underground in West Virginia as a coal miner for Eastern Coal, a subsidiary of Patriot Coal. The work was hard. He went through two knee surgeries and back surgery. And today, as a result of his years in the mines, he suffers from Black Lung, which blocks roughly 15 percent of his breathing capacity.
Joe was a loyal worker who looked forward to his retirement. Eastern Coal promised him a good pension and good health benefits. But that's all changed now. He's just one of thousands of miners and their families who are feeling the rug pulled out from under them as they face a future without the retirement benefits they were planning on.
Adding insult to injury, companies like Peabody and Patriot have received sweetheart deals from our government in the form of cheap leases to mine on public lands. As a result, taxpaying citizens like Joe and the rest of us will be paying for our own mistreatment.
Patriot, Peabody and Arch have endangered far more than their workers. If they prevail in the courts, it will set a precedent that any and all companies can follow. It would mean that any company can shirk its responsibilities and defile what we as Americans value -- fair compensation for honest work.
If we allow Patriot, Peabody and Arch to renege on their promises to their workers, retirees and widows, we'll be failing our fellow Americans. We'll also be missing an important opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder and begin to work together to build the kind of world we want to leave behind for our kids and grandkids.
These coal companies expect to divide and conquer. They assume that we'll allow our political differences to stand in the way of doing what's right. What Patriot, Peabody and Arch don't plan on is environmentalists, people of faith, civil rights champions, and a broad and diverse segment of society standing in solidarity with coal miners.
Whether you are an environmentalist like me, or a person of conscience moved for other reasons, you can help stand up for what's right by:
(1) Signing a petition to show your solidarity. By signing, you'll let the coal miners know that you're standing up to protect their health care and the danger posed to us all by what Patriot, Peabody and Arch are doing.
(2) Ensuring that coal companies keep their promises to their workers. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Nick Rahall have introduced the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act to protect the promised lifetime pension and healthcare benefits of retired coal miners. Tell your Congressional representatives to support the Act.
(3) Demanding that our political leaders hold coal companies accountable. Congress should call for hearings to investigate the abuse of bankruptcy laws by Patriot, Peabody and Arch. Further, bad actors like these big coal companies shouldn't get cheap access to public lands and then dump on the rest of us.
Environmentalists have always fought to protect what's threatened. Right now, these coal miners are one of the most endangered species in America. It's time for all of us step up and stand with them.