Coal Country


Pennsylvania is hugely coal country. And, with the Marcellus Shale fracking, there has been a sudden influx of money that has been very welcome in most of the state. About a decade ago, neighbors were pitted against neighbors as carpetbaggers with energy exploration contracts came through, getting people to sign exploration rights with rights of first refusal. In economically depressed areas like Carbon County (a county named after coal, what do you think?) the money and the work were very welcome.

Of course, the propaganda that Obama, and later Clinton, were anti-coal had a great deal of traction.

Fall morning, Lewisburg PA

Fall morning, (Edit: Homer City) Lewisburg PA

Pennsylvania and Michigan – the “rust belt” were easy to convince that their manufacturing jobs were moved overseas because, well, they were. But it wasn’t regulators or unions that did that, it was rapacious capitalists who’d fuck anyone over if it made them a couple of dollars. Unfortunately, when fracking came along, and there was outcry against it from the environmentally conscious, that was just seen as another bunch of crybaby elites wanting to set the working class back, again.

When I moved up here, I had the water from the spring that feeds my house tested. It was undrinkable (I mean, I could have kept drinking it, but…) and I laid a pipe. Later, I found out that there had been a settlement and many of the locals had been paid by a mining company for the damage to the water supply; they just used the money to put food on the table, and kept drinking the water. There are anti-vaxxers up here who want to blame vaccines for their kids being a bit “off” but I think the lead and copper in the water might have more to do with it.

When people are in economic straits it’s very easy to divide and conquer them, or to convince them that their real enemy is someone other than who it is. When things are complicated, it’s easy to sell a simple solution. It’s wrong, but it’s a solution.

The big 600Mw coal plant at Shawville, 10 miles from my house, was going to be shut down by Reliant, because of regulation and carbon taxes making it unprofitable. But it’s still operational, re-fitted to burn oil gas from the local shale. Of course the 75 jobs that were saved has been reduced to about 40, since there won’t be as much need for trucking and coal-movers. The coal mountain that Shawville burned was truly impressive – 100 feet tall, covering several football fields – always moving and more always coming in. The entire mountain-top over by Pottersdale went into the mouth of the plant at Shawville, and the town of Pottersdale with it (it was dying anyway and the few residents were happy to sell their homes and move away from the mining)

The few times I’ve discussed the economics of coal and fracking with neighbors, it hasn’t gone well. Liberal elites want to stop coal and gas, and people need it for the money. When I try to explain that, really, it’s not about freedom – it’s about tipping back and forth across an energy company’s profit margin – and that the energy companies have already thrown them repeatedly under the bus – I get glares of resentment. It’s hard to accept that the forces that control your life really don’t give a shit about you, and will poison your water and air because they need another bigger mansion. It’s easier to accept that the liberal elites are just mean, or something. It’s always the hand that feeds you that’s right, always, isn’t it? Clearfield and Philipsburg have beautiful victorian mansions along the rivers, where the bosses that ran the mines and the investment casting plants used to live. The money left when the industry left; its descendants probably play the energy company stocks on Wall St. now. The descendants of the labor-force are still here, in the dead economy and poisoned groundwater, and they’ve got nothing to show for it except that they’re a “demographic” that can be manipulated by amoral politicians.

And the wheel keeps turning.

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Power Magazine: “PA Coal Plant Gets New Lease On Life With Gas Repowering

The self-abnegation of the victims of propaganda is always intensely painful to me. A few years ago, when the shale fracking started to get big, Pennsylvania arranged to tax some of the massive profits the energy companies were expecting to get. Somehow, the energy companies convinced the laborers that the state was a bunch of interfering meany-pants that were jeopardizing their jobs – when in fact what was happening was the energy companies’ profit margins were being adjusted downward slightly to take into account the massive damage being done to roads, water, bridges, and forests. I believe the oil companies solved their “problem” politically – they bought off the right people and carried on as usual, which means the laborers are still paying more, and still have jobs, and the oil company execs have nice summer houses in Montauk or Tahoe, and they have enough spare change to buy off the next round of politicians that come snuffling to the trough.

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    There’s a Marxist on Medium by the name of Holly Wood who has been penning scathing diatribes about the role of white men as shock troops for Capitalism. After all, the proletariat can’t rise if most of it’s being beat down by a slightly-less proletariat class.

  2. springa73 says

    The right wing in the US has been very successful in persuading lots of working class people that wealthy business leaders care more about their welfare then those damn liberal elitists. I’m not completely sure why this has worked more in the USA than in most other countries, but it has worked very well. And of course the right has been equally good at portraying environmentalists as the enemies of economic prosperity.

    It’s hard for the left to do well in this country when their enemies have been more effective at defining them than they have been at defining themselves.

  3. Jes says

    What is that a picture of? The closest plant to Lewisburg is PPL Montour, in Washingtonville (15 miles away directly).

    And I feel your pain. “There’s Philly and Pittsburgh, and between them Pennsyltucky”.

  4. says

    Jes@#4:
    I mis-named the place – as you know, there are so many little towns (and some overlap in names) it’s not Lewisburg, it’s near Indiana – I was heading in to Pittsburgh and went down 119 to 22. The place in the picture is Homer City generating station.
    https://goo.gl/maps/uV7tMjie75H2

    Another fun thing to do is to track the power plants in google maps and look at the coal piles near them.

  5. says

    So, now that you can see the size of the cooling towers in my picture, and the towers in google satellite map… That coal pile is ginormous.

    Here’s a fun cooling tower fact: if you look closely you’ll see they have a sort of texture of tiny rectangles on the face of the towers. Those are the outlines of the 4×8 plywood sheets used to form the concrete. When I went inside the cooling towers in Chernobyl, one of the reactor #6 towers was still incomplete under construction and if you craned your neck and looked waaaaaay up I could see the form was still on it and it was just wood.

    Edit:
    Here it is!

  6. says

    Shiv@#1:
    There’s a Marxist on Medium by the name of Holly Wood who has been penning scathing diatribes about the role of white men as shock troops for Capitalism. After all, the proletariat can’t rise if most of it’s being beat down by a slightly-less proletariat class.

    It must be intensely frustrating for them. In the 20s and 30s labor actually appeared to be making some traction, but the intense blasting of post-WWII propaganda appears to have resulted in a complete victory for capital, to the point where “socialist” is an insult and the proles use it against eachother. It’s like Orwell’s 1984 was a fucking documentary.

  7. says

    springa73@#2:
    The right wing in the US has been very successful in persuading lots of working class people that wealthy business leaders care more about their welfare then those damn liberal elitists. I’m not completely sure why this has worked more in the USA than in most other countries, but it has worked very well.

    I’d say it’s pretty much Marx was right again: the working class are kept ignorant and are subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda telling them that they just need to work a little harder and they’ll be “middle class”, while the “middle class” help keep them down and the upper class stuff their faces with brioche. Religion plays it crucial part, as well: work hard in this world and you’ll drive a lexus on streets paved with gold in the next. Prosperity gospels balanced with racism and religious hatred. It’s a poisonous stew.

    It’s hard for the left to do well in this country when their enemies have been more effective at defining them than they have been at defining themselves.

    The left has always had the problem that they don’t really have any means of taking control from the right, without the right’s resorting to violence and blaming them for it. The Russians pretty conclusively shit the hot tub in terms of illustrating how not to build an ideal society. By now, all the right has to do is point to the French and Russian revolutions and say “do you want that?!” Heck, no.

  8. says

    eddie@#3:
    “Stockholm syndrome” … sort of. See, here’s the problem with psychology terminology: there’s some root cause below the term but we don’t know what that is, so we just use the term. Stockholm syndrome describes the situation where a victim comes to identify with their oppressor during the course of a stressful encounter. OK, so that describes it but what we really want to get at is how, why, and when that identification occurs. If you break that down, then you’ve explained stockholm syndrome and probably a whole lot more, besides.

    I actually read a fair bit about the stockholm syndrome lady (there’s an interview with Kristin Enmark on BBC’s “witness” podcast, which is really interesting) It seems to me that what happened is she came to understand that the people holding her hostage had reasons and she came around to agreeing with the reasons if not the methods.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p044trz7

  9. says

    An oddity I do not know the answer to is this: why don’t coal piles spontaneously combust any more?

    There was an era when coal ships would routinely just catch fire and burn to the waterline, and while sad and expensive, it was just part of the business. That doesn’t seem to happen any more. Apparently someone figured out what to do, but to MY eye it still looks like just big giant heaps of coal just like the ones that used to occasionally go POOF. Well more smoldersmolderSmolderFIREFIREFIREFIREOMGFIRE.

    One day I will look up the answer, but today is not that day.

  10. says

    Andrew Molitor@#10:
    why don’t coal piles spontaneously combust any more?

    I think the issue with coal piles is that if the get bacterial growth they’ll start to cook – so you need to keep them moving and not sitting for long. The big coal pile at Shawville would go completely into the furnace about once a week. I’d guess that there was never enough piled up for long enough to get hot enough.

    With respect to ships – I believe the problem was coal dust and sparks – ships that fuelled coal also had great big furnaces with dusty coal being shovelled into them; by the age of dreadnoughts they pretty much understood the right amount of moisture to have in the air in the boiler rooms.

    There’s a book I read recently about military hubris (Alistair Horne) that has some really amazing descriptions of the coal-related hell that the Russian fleet went through on the way to Tsushima (i.e.: they went halfway around the world, just to get killed horribly) — I had never thought of this, but most of the coal was moved onto the ships using shovels. Eeeeeeeeeeeee!!! The reason I mention all this is because some of the Russian ships were so over-coaled that they had great big hampers of coal squirreled away on the decks. Unfortunately for them, the Japanese had an early version of a picric acid-based shell, which shot red-hot spinters on impact. A perfect storm of fail.

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