LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF DYING COAL - Diminished Spirit, Unheard Voices


By Bob Weaver

The overweight coal truck issue will likely be put to rest this week by majority vote of the West Virginia Legislature. The select committee, whose appointments had few dissidents, has recommended a 120,000 limit for certified vehicles on designated haulage routes, doubling the current weight limit.

The leading spokesperson against high limits, Delegate Mike Caputo of Marion, was not on the committee.

The task force has recommended strict enforcement of a 120,000 limit on state roads, with an enforced 80,000 pound limit remaining on interstate highways. The new limits curiously apply only to coal hauling.

Norm Roush, deputy engineer with the highway department, testified it would cost $6.5 billion to upgrade the state highways to handle these kind of weights. The over weights have been illegally tolerated for years, including the coal companies hiring spotters to keep from getting tickets.

Gov. Bob Wise said his recent enforcement of overweight trucks showed many of the trucks had been running in excess of 160,000 pounds. The Underwood administration opted not to enforce overweight truck laws, with few tickets issued.

More than a dozen people have died in crashes with coal trucks in recent months, dozens more seriously injured, with studies indicating the majority of the deaths were linked to overweight trucks.

The industry attempted to prove, during the hearings, larger trucks were safer. Federal regulations called for any truck weighing over 100,000 pounds to stop within 40 feet. Controlled tests performed before members showed, at 40 miles per hour, it took 90 feet for a 120,000 pound truck to stop. At 60 miles per hour, it took 246 feet. These were the best results, well-honed trucks, not the worst.

Furthermore, it seems obvious if the state had stuck to lower weight trucks, there would be more companies, more haulers and more jobs.

Political reporters for The Charleston Gazette contend the weight issue was a done deal before the Governor's Truck Safety Work Group began.

Meanwhile, Workmen's Compensation, under direction of Gov. Bob Wise, has recovered about $50 million dollars from coal companies that refused to pay their premiums, stating they were not liable because the labor was done by contract workers. Gov. Cecil Underwood and his group attempted to excuse about $400 million in premiums owed the under-funded agency, some owed by Underwood's former employer.

The battle continues with the blasting of entire mountain tops for coal removal and the dumping of the spillage in hundreds of miles of mountain streams. A coal industry ad campaign said they were creating "Fields of Dreams," flat land, much needed in the mountain state.

Hundreds of early strip-mining sites are still not reclaimed.

Corporate coal tells West Virginia politicians the tightening of laws and environmental standards will destroy the industry, eliminating jobs. In fact, the decline in jobs has virtually nothing to do with such issues. The amount of coal production has consistently risen.

West Virginia has given King Coal most every break these past 100 years. The decline in coal workers, from 60,000 in 1980 to about 15,000 today, is linked to quick and dirty mountain top removal. Around West Virginia it takes about 3,500 employees to do that job.

It is mechanization that has dwindled the numbers, but West Virginian's are still hostage to the situation, often placing blame in the wrong places. It takes only three people to operate one of those giant earth moving devices.

The history is clear, the stories told in Denise Giardina's books "The Unquiet Earth" and "Storming Heaven," and more recently in John O'Brien's Pulitizer-nominated book "At Home in the Heart of Appalachia." A message of power has rolled across the mountains, and those who want change, have often been destroyed.

It is "learning your place," the impoverishment of oppression.

The poorest counties in West Virginia is where the greatest extraction of natural resources has occurred. The coal, oil, gas and timber barons of the 20th century and some of our political leaders quietly contend, it is the ignorance of mountain people, their own mismanagement, that has maintained poverty.

With succeeding administrations in Charleston, the advantage has been the last administration has been at fault.

John McFerrin, a Beckley lawyer, asked "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but loose his soul? What does it profit a state to loose its soul to be in 49th place?"

Hopefully, there will remain handfuls of people, even when demonized, who bear witness to the human condition and social justice.

The lessons of corporate greed are obviously ignored in Washington, so why would West Virginia be an exception.

The oppression of those who live in our mighty mountains might be overcome with the help of the Great Spirit, who, after all, is really in charge.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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