BLOG: That Time 250 Coal Miners Crashed a Hearing

Ever spend weeks carefully planning something and then have 250 unexpected guests show up – and then do exactly the opposite of what you’d hoped?

Me neither. Until last Tuesday.

You may recall our emails and calls urging our supporters to attend a key public hearing on Jan. 26 at the Salt Lake Main Library. A hearing that could help determine the future of coal power in Utah.

That work paid off – a few hundred of you showed up, determined to urge the EPA to order Rocky Mountain Power to install technologies to sharply reduce emissions from their aging coal power plant fleet. Thank you!

But, for at least the hearing’s afternoon session, we were badly outnumbered by the arrival of roughly 250 central Utah residents, nearly all coal miners and their families. They roared up from Sanpete, Emery and Carbon counties, packed the hearing room and the hall outside, and waved signs in order to, well, stand up for coal! (see photos in this email.)

It was surprising. And interesting. And distressing. And before I describe the pretty fascinating collision of environmentalists and coal miners, I want to ask you – beg you – to take a moment know and the let the EPA know where you stand on this issue.

Click here to comment on the agency’s two proposed plans. The first plan – which we oppose – would order no new pollution controls on Rocky Mountain Power’s Hunter and Huntington coal plants. The second would require the installation of a state-of-the-art pollution control technology called SCR, which can cut emissions of harmful nitrogen oxide pollution by 76 percent. That sharp reduction in dangerous pollution would not only go a long way to cleaning up the haze in our national parks (the goal of this particular “Regional Haze” rule) but would also improve the health of our families.

OK, back to the hearing.

Some of you might be expecting me to rant because coal mining companies, which supply coal to Hunter and Huntington, likely hired buses and gave their workers the day off to pack the hearings. Maybe you expect me to say something like, “Deep-pocketed industry is trying to game the system” or something.

But, honestly, I don’t feel that way. Yes, the company helped the miners and their families get there, but the fear and anxiety these working class Utahns feel about their future is genuine. They are legitimately concerned about how they’re going to feed their families. These are not Americans with advanced degrees and lots of options. They live in a beautiful part of the state where jobs that pay well are few and far between. For generations, they’ve taken black rocks out of the ground. And now, the world is changing. And that has them worried. Not just about them, but about their kids. What does the future hold for them?

You know what’s interesting? It’s not that different from the worry we feel. Our worry is about something else, of course. We worry that because of that black rock (and black oil) the world around is changing irrevocably. We worry that a warming planet will choke off our food supply, dry up our water and cause millions of us to flee, leading to chaos and despair. We worry not just about humanity, but the natural world.

So maybe we’re not that different, but we don’t spend much time trying to really understand each other, do we?

When climate change activists and environmentalists are confronted with the reality of the economic toll of moving away from fossil fuels, we tend to say things like “Hey, but there’s green jobs!” And that is true – overall, the transition to clean energy will lead to an increase in employment – but it’s not that simple for the coal miner. Those clean energy jobs require different skills. And they’re often in different places.

Last Tuesday didn’t make me any less certain about the need to move away from coal power as soon as possible. I’m just as confident now as I was then that the right thing for each of us to do is to ask the EPA to choose clean air and to choose national parks.

But I think we’re all better off if we occasionally try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I did that a bit last week and I’m glad I did. I know now, that the next time my ideas collide with a coal miner’s, I’ll strive for a bit more empathy and humility – even as I move forward with certainty that our world demands we make this critical transition as soon as we can.



P.S. It was a quiet week at the State Legislature, but of course that will change soon. As always, we’d urge you to sign up for our Legislative Updates to get the inside scoop on what’s going on at the Hill.

P.P.S. Hey, are you listening to the HEAL Utah podcast? We’ve put out 27 episodes so far and they’re short, interesting conversations about all things green in Utah. The most recent one, with climate activist Lauren Wood, is pretty darn good. Click here for all our episodes and information on how to subscribe.