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.