A "boneyard" at the Eagle Butte coal mine north of Gillette, photographed in December 2019, is filled with old mining equipment. Eagle Butte was one of several coal mines to temporarily close in 2019 due to Blackjewel's bankruptcy. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)


The contrast between those who work and live in coal country and those who profit the most off the coal industry is staggering. In coal communities from the Powder River Basin to Navajo Nation to Central Appalachia, we have lands, water and people — like many of my former colleagues in the mines — scarred by decades of extraction methods that put profits before everything else. On the other hand, in the corner offices of the coal industry’s headquarters, we have millionaire coal CEOs who often don’t even live in our communities, backed by armies of lobbyists and accountants paid to protect them from accountability.

So many in our coal communities have fought for years to secure changes that could protect our health, our safety and our environment only to be met with fierce opposition and blatant mistruths by coal industry CEOs. We’ve heard it over and over again — whenever coal barons are asked to invest in miner safety, restoring mine lands they abandoned or in cleaning up their own pollution, they claim poverty. They say they simply don’t have the resources, arguing that actions that would require them to protect their workers from toxic coal dust or to clean up dangerous and hazardous old mines would cost them so much revenue they’d have to close up shop and lay off miners.

But the rhetoric coal barons use to avoid accountability simply does not match the reality they are sharing with their wealthiest stockholders. Rather than scrounging for pennies, the coal industry’s own earnings statements show coal CEOs are rewarding Wall Street investors with huge share buybacks, paying top dollar for stocks while leaving miners and coal communities in the dark. Over the last year and a half, seven publicly traded coal companies repurchased more than $1 billion of their own stock from Wall Street investors, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Why is that significant? Analysts from S&P Global note that companies usually buy back shares when the cash “is not needed to fund operations or new capital projects.” To tell miners and mining communities that $1 billion isn’t needed is a slap in the face. It is clear evidence that these coal CEOs thought it was more important to reward Wall Street than to invest in mine safety or cleaning up the drinking water they’ve polluted. 

Think of what this money could have done if invested in curbing the toxic coal and silica dust that miners are breathing in now, or in preventing landslides and erosion caused by countless abandoned mines across the country. Lives could be saved and communities would be protected. This wouldn’t be charity, either — it would be coal CEOs simply paying for the damage they have caused. Instead, a handful of wealthy shareholders will be rewarded while the rest of us pay the price.

This isn’t just an insult — it undermines the arguments that coal CEOs use every time they’re put under pressure. The same pattern of deception is happening right now everywhere there is a push to hold coal CEOs accountable for their actions. Think of the countless times coal CEOs tell politicians they can’t afford to abide by common-sense safety proposals or they strategically declare bankruptcy to shed their obligations to their workers. The fallout from Blackjewel’s collapse in Wyoming is only one recent example. Meanwhile, they’ve pocketed enough cash that they can fork over $1 billion to Wall Street. These coal barons should be laughed out of Congress and our state capitals for making such outlandish claims, and met with strong standards to protect miners and coal communities. Instead, they get a free pass.

Miners and former miners like me are used to getting the runaround from coal bosses. The same companies constantly claiming they care about our safety didn’t even offer trainings about black lung safety, claiming we couldn’t get it where I worked in the Powder River Basin. Now, research shows that those working in surface mines out West are falling ill with black lung just like so many of our colleagues in Central Appalachia. 

It’s time to break this vicious cycle. These new share buybacks clearly show where the coal barons’ priorities truly are, and — to nobody’s surprise — it’s their own profits. Congress, our state elected officials, and the public should never forget this reality. These companies are claiming poverty while skimming a billion dollars in profits at the expense of future clean up, miners’ health, and community safety. 

The policymakers who consistently say they support coal miners must fight back on our behalf. 

Congress and state officials should keep this in mind every time they hear another sad story from a coal company trying to wriggle out of its obligations. They’ve already made their choice to do what is best for their bottom lines — now, it’s time for our elected officials to make the choice that is best for the people.

Lynne Huskinson is a retired Campbell County coal miner, having spent 39 years in the profession. She attended classes at Northwest Community College. Huskinson is a member of a variety of conservation...

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  1. the democrats have controlled the congress for twice as many sessions as the republicans.
    the presidency has been controlled by democrats more than the republicans.

    the congress & the presidency has been controlled by the democrats more than republicans.
    if your not happy with the bankruptcy laws you should be addressing you grievance towards that political party.

  2. So a coal company CEO pulls up to the mine change house in a brand new fancy sports car. An hourly employee comments what a nice car. The CEO says yes it sure is, and if you continue to work hard, next year I’ll be able to buy another one.

  3. Fine, burn more coal to run your air conditioner because you’ve been burning coal. The issue is the socialization/externalization of business costs. If, as part of your business model, you can’t stay solvent while creating safe working conditions for your employees, minimizing pollution and cleaning up when you are done, then your business model is a failure to society.

  4. We need to address the game of hiding the origin as these corporations transferring permits. Next comes the bankruptcy yet not before they pull their assets out of the equation. This puts the burden back on the people to pay financially or with the health and safety of their families. This really applies in these mining communities as we continue to experience the flooding and extreme weather events here in Appalachia as in around the world. [These coal barons should be laughed out of Congress and our state capitals for making such outlandish claims, and met with strong standards to protect miners and coal communities. Instead, they get a free pass.] Saying this as we sit awaiting the flood warning issued this morning for the area.

  5. You hint at why the energy companies are not held accountable: Our elected representatives, who, with apologists like Mr. Hill, do almost nothing to enforce compliance. The sanctity of private property and capital accumulation is so built into the American psyche that it’s considered seditious for anyone to demand attentiveness to the working classes. It’ll interfere with the basic business model.

  6. The only reason a business exists is to generate profit for it’s shareholders. Hating on these energy companies for being profitable shows a poor understanding of how the economy works. Profitable companies create good paying jobs for Wyoming citizens.

    Are there bad actors? You bet. There are also some very good companies out there who compensate their employees well and do an excellent job of post-mining reclamation. Judging an entire industry by its bad actors is like judging all of society by its criminals. Doesn’t make sense, does it.

    Your hatred of coal-fired electrical generation is evident in your tone. Bet you enjoyed it last winter when it was -20F outside. The world is full of hypocrites.

  7. Personally I’m darn happy we have coal. I’m sure we can pick out things that we all are doing wrong.
    We have one heck of a hill to climb before we don’t need coal.

  8. I don’t question the validity of this article and the points made at all. What I would like to point out is this: when we look at the TOTAL cost of electricity generation from our western u.s. coal one factor seems to be continuously ignored. The subsidized railroads make more income from transporting coal on a per ton basis than the coal companies do. I wish someone would make a pie chart illustrating just that: for each ton of coal used in electricity, what do the slices really look like? It would surprise most people.

  9. This is such important information to get out to the public. Thank you. Something else I am interested in knowing more about is why the federal government is paying to clean up abandoned oil well sites? Do I understand this right?

    1. As someone in the industry, I’m excited to see your interest! I agree that Lynne touched on some crucial points. As an Engineer specializing in the reclamation of abandoned coal mines, I can tell you that similar efforts are undertaken for abandoned oil well sites.

      The reason the federal government gets involved in reclaiming these sites is to address the environmental and safety hazards they pose. Reclamation involves restoring the land to a safe and functional state, preventing pollution, and protecting surrounding ecosystems.

      If you’re interested in learning more about abandoned mine lands, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement provides valuable information on their website: [Link: https://www.osmre.gov/bil%5D

      This article highlights an essential balance between companies pursuing profits and society’s responsibility to protect our health and safety. It’s vital to strike a balance that benefits both the economy and the environment.

      Feel free to reach out if you have any further questions or would like to discuss this topic more. Thank you!