Obama's Coal Problem in Battleground States

Salena Zito

3/25/2012 12:01:00 AM - Salena Zito

VAN METER, Pa. -- Unless you happen upon the chunk of coal marking where 239 men died in the old Darr Mine, now along the Great Allegheny Passageway trail, you’d never know you passed over one of the worst U.S. coal-mining disasters.

A little more than 100 years later, coal still has a complicated relationship with Pennsylvania’s people, land and politicians.

Even the dead can’t let go.

Joe (he wouldn’t give his last name) stood with his wife along the Youghiogheny River, walking the ruins of the Pittsburgh Coal Co., a half-mile from Darr, hunting for the mine’s remains.

“I’m a coal miner,” he said. “I’ve spent 30 years in the mines.”

He wanted to find the exact spot of the disaster because a buddy told him that ghosts wander there at night. “I guess I just want to understand this bond we have with the ‘widow-maker,’ ” he said. “It feeds us, gives us a good life, then can take it away in an instant.”

As he and his wife walked down the trail, 30-foot coal hills to their left served as a makeshift motocross; a dozen young men soared with abandon along the steep piles of black rock, kicking up smoky dust and yelling with each mid-air twist of their motorcycles.

Coal is many things to many people. It once powered the mighty U.S. Navy, the steam locomotives carrying commerce cross-country, and most American homes and businesses.

At the start of the 20th century, mining companies faced such difficulty finding enough labor to meet the demand that they crisscrossed Eastern Europe, promising company housing and good wages to young men who emigrated to America.

It was the golden age of “King Coal.”

Today, Pennsylvania coal still generates more than half of the state’s electrical power, according to Edward Yankovich, United Mine Workers District II vice president. “In Ohio, 80 percent,” he added.

Yet it is the one energy resource about which President Obama dares not speak. In fact, Obama has not mentioned it since last year – and then, only in passing at a news conference.

Last Thursday, in what the White House touted as his “big American-made energy” speech, the president never mentioned coal.

“That’s – that is just disappointing,” said T. J. Rooney, former state chairman of Pennsylvania’s Democrats, who oversaw several very successful cycles for his party.

Yankovich refuses to criticize Obama but suggests driving to one of those electricity-generating windmills in Somerset County to see how many cars are in its parking lot. “None. None,” he replies. “But drive over to Homer City in Indiana County, and you will see 200 to 300 at any time of the day.”

The coal-fired Homer City power plant is pretty imposing, home to the second-tallest smokestack in the country. It is in the midst of proposing a $725 million pollution-abatement project, to avoid being one of more than 100 coal-fired plants that power generators recently decided to shut down – including six in Pennsylvania – ahead of new federal clean-air rules that take effect in 2015.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., says we need to find a balance of wind, sun and clean coal.

“It’s not just jobs, it is costs, too,” he said, referring to monthly electric bills. “That last thing we need in this slow-moving economy is rising energy bills, not just at the pump but in the home as well.”

Rooney said Obama needs to address coal and the balance he will strike between environmental protection and rising energy costs: “It is an issue that will define his re-election fight here in Pennsylvania as well as Ohio.”

Last Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden appeared in Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, watched by nearly 300,000 people. The Scranton native shook hands, held babies -- and sometimes was booed.

Given Western Pennsylvania’s coal-rich history, some parade-goers likely remembered his declaration of support for clean coal in China but not in the United States.

“No coal plants here in America,” he said in Eastern Ohio in 2008. “Build them, if they’re going to build them, over there. Make them clean.”

Maybe some of the 500 people who attended a meeting last week, about keeping the Homer City plant operating, also attended Pittsburgh’s parade.