Dueling rallies pit jobs against air

They met at the intersection of Liberty Avenue and 10th Street, a sea of thousands of mine workers in camouflage and hundreds of environmental protesters, chanting competing slogans.

"Hey, hey, EPA, don't take our jobs away," the miners cried.

"No planet, no jobs," the environmentalists shouted back.

Standing between the two camps was Pittsburgh resident Charles McCollester, a labor supporter and lifelong environmentalist, holding a sign: "As long as blue union jobs are pitted against green earth health, we are all doomed."

In the William S. Moorhead Federal Building just a block away, the Environmental Protection Agency was in the first few hours of public testimony in Pittsburgh over its proposed carbon-emission regulations.

The union miners, electrical workers and boilermakers attending the rally on Thursday came in 70 buses from a half-dozen states, united under this theme: Job and the U.S. economy are in grave danger if EPA's rules are enacted.

"Our message today is not for the EPA," said Donald Siegel, international vice president of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, Third District. "Our message today is to the American people. It's a simple message: pay attention."

When the U.S. government says the EPA's proposed rules won't impact the economy, "They're wrong," he said, explaining that miners would lose their jobs and Appalachian communities would suffer.

Kim Glas, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, which counts 16 million environmental group and union members, said workers don’t have to choose between a clean environment or good jobs.

“Quality, family-sustaining jobs will be created throughout an economy that also addresses climate change,” Ms. Glas said. “We understand that workers need a fair shake. We will not leave workers behind as we transition to a more sustainable energy economy.”

"We all want clean air," Mr. Siegel said during a rally at the David H. Lawrence Convention Center that preceded coal supporters marching through Downtown to the federal building. "But you can't take 40 gigawatts of power off the grid“ and not expect consequences.

"There's not enough natural gas or solar panels or wind to make up for that loss."

Mr. Siegel asked for more time to allow the federal government to finally come up with a comprehensive energy policy that would allow the country to ramp up renewables and figure out how to burn coal cleaner and more efficiently.

Many coal supporters said that curbing emissions in the U.S. now would fuel the rise of developing nations such as China, India, Mexico and Vietnam, leaving the U.S. in their dust.

"I predict once we decrease our burn, they're going to increase theirs because they're going to look out for their economy, and we should, too," said Dan Kane, international secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America.

Mr. Kane likened the EPA rules to a pharmaceutical commercial with its litany of side effects, which he said were "worse than the cure."

But Jacqui Patterson, who heads the NAACP’s environment and climate program, said the coal mining industry says nothing about the costs of inaction.

Today, she said, 68 percent of minorities in the U.S. live within 30 miles of a coal-burning power plant, 71 percent live in areas that are in violation of federal air quality standards, and twice as many minority children than white children die due to asthma attacks.

“We need to establish these aggressive targets for pollution reduction,” she said. “We need to get this situation under control for all our sakes.”

Paula Swearengin, a West Virginia resident whose family has strong ties to the coal mines there, said she lost her miner grandfather to black lung disease and her father to cancer.

“I’m tired of burying family members for this industry,” she said. “The nation’s energy plan is flawed. It’s powered by my family’s blood, and it’s past time we stand up for a better energy future.”

The miners' march culminated in the prearranged arrests of UMWA President Cecil Roberts and 13 other union leaders, who notified the police they'd be peacefully trespassing on federal grounds to get booked.

Their rank and file, meanwhile, marched past a giant, smoke-spewing mechanized face of President Barack Obama, a prop used by West Virginia Constitution Party U.S. Senate candidate Phil Hudok.

They passed a table of renewable energy executives lunching on Penn Avenue and ran into a small, friendly crowd of protesters from Americans for Prosperity, one of whom scolded, "You should have done this two years ago. You guys are too late."

Prior to the march, Mr. Roberts riled up the union members by linking coal not just to electricity but to the establishment of a middle class, and a way of life.

Just as his supporter's applause swelled in the convention center, Mayor Bill Peduto was addressing a crowd of about 400 environmentalists at the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture.

Mr. Peduto said that while he recognized the region’s historic role in coal production, it was time to move forward into a new era of energy production with its existing workforce “that won’t poison our air and water.”

“Pittsburgh has gone through a lot of changes during its history,” he said. “Change is hard, and I’m not being dismissive at all here, but we want to hurry them (miners) along so they can get opportunities for good jobs in a new energy economy.”

First Published July 31, 2014 2:41 PM

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