As a retired coal miner, the son of a coal miner, and the father of a coal miner, I’m curious about Congress’ recent attacks on the EPA and claims of a “war on coal.” These claims are nothing but a distraction from the real needs of coalfield communities. 

I live in Harlan County, Kentucky in the very heart of the Appalachian coalfields, and with the exception of a couple years in Vietnam as a United States Marine, I have lived here all my life.

I’m working every day - along with thousands of other Kentuckians - to build a better future here in Eastern Kentucky and across Appalachia so that my grandchildren and their children can make a life here.  We believe we can have a bright future here with more and better jobs, safe and affordable energy, healthy communities, and opportunities for our kids.

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Of course, we know it won't be easy.  It will take hard work, creativity, and investment in new ideas and real solutions.  More than anything, it will require honest leadership with vision and courage.

That's why this Congress’ misguided attacks are such a disappointment. The war on coal is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to keep us from seeing the true challenges and real opportunities in communities like mine.

You see, the coal industry has been leaving Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky for decades.  In 1980 there were more than 34,000 coal miners working in Eastern Kentucky.  By 1990, that number was down to 25,000 despite a production peak. Fewer than 8,000 jobs remain today — the lowest since 1927 — and continue to fall.

For years, industry analysts, coal company executives, and energy agencies warned that our best and easiest coal has been mined, that transportation costs have been rising, that cleaner and cheaper alternatives to coal were on the rise. 

It has been clear that we needed to be building a new economy here in the coalfields for generations, yet our political leaders have done little or nothing to help us prepare for the inevitable transition. 

If Congress really wants to help the coal miner, there are several ways to start. First, Congress should pass the mine safety reforms we’ve been waiting for since the Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 fellow miners in 2010.  Congress should help ensure coal miners don’t get black lung - a vicious and entirely preventable workplace disease that is increasing instead of disappearing. Congress should also make sure that a miner’s hard earned pension is secure, not stolen by some corporate shell game.

Congress should remember that every coal miner is more than just his job.  He - or she - is also a son or daughter, a parent, a spouse.  When he's not underground 60 or 70 hours a week, he is a member of his church, his local PTA or volunteer fire department; he might be a Little League coach. 

If Congress really cares about coal miners and coal families, then it should work to give them a future.

For instance, Congress could generate thousands of new jobs in the coalfields by creating a revolving fund for energy efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses, and pass the Shaheen-Portman bill to create thousands of energy efficiency jobs.

We like to say that if you give a coal miner a coat hanger and some electrical tape, he can fix anything.  Congress could release the millions of dollars sitting in the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund and employ thousands of laid-off coal miners to restore our land, forests, and water. Congress could locate one of those fancy new manufacturing innovation centers the president talks about right here in the mountains. 

Instead of raging about a made-up war on coal and how to protect coal corporations, Congress should take a closer look at how to really support coal communities.

Over the past century, Harlan County has shipped over one billion tons of coal to steel mills and power plants across this country. In a district represented by some of the most powerful politicians in Washington D.C., one-third of our children live in poverty and we rank 435th in combined quality of life indicators. 

It's time to try something new.  We can have a bright future here in the coalfields of Kentucky and Appalachia.  Our people are hungry for honest and courageous leaders who will help us build it.

Shoupe, who has lived and worked in and around coal mines all of his life, is a resident of Benham in Harlan County, Kentucky.