Posted by: formeraccount | May 12, 2011

Selective Hearing in the House of Representatives

“Let anyone with ears to hear listen” Mark 4:9

As a man from West Virginia sat silently in the middle of the room, the president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce was warmly welcomed and invited to speak at a congressional hearing entitled “EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs.”

The House subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment put on the hearing, and from the title alone it was clear that this was intended to be a one-sided affair. Eight people spoke on behalf of the coal industry, one person spoke for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and nobody spoke for the people of Appalachia. The man simply sat there with a small piece of duct tape over his mouth that read “MTR Kills.” [Mountain Top Removal]

Several peer reviewed studies show that coal mining, and in particular surface mining and mountaintop removal are deadly to local residents, causing a loss of productivity.

A study by Harvard Medical School published earlier this year found that, “For the years 1997-2005, excess age-adjusted mortality rates in coal mining areas of Appalachia compared to national rates outside Appalachia translates to 10,923 excess deaths every year,”

Contrary to claims of job creation by the coal industry, the same study found that, “In Appalachia, as levels of mining increase, so do poverty rates and unemployment rates, while educational attainment rates and household income levels decline.”

Although all the evidence stands against them, the coal industry continues its claim that decreasing regulations will help them to create jobs. The best explanation for this singular phenomenon comes not from any political theorist, but from the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s 1932 masterpiece Moral Man and Immoral Society takes a long look at the functioning of society and the power of economic interest groups:

laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant belief that the general welfare is best served by placing the least possible physical restraints upon economic activity. The history of the past hundred years is a refutation of the theory, but it is still maintained…..

…Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed…Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.

The evidence is out there, but the current subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment does not have ears to hear it. It is important that academics carefully study the results of coal-mining, but by itself the numbers and statistics are not enough to persuade the raw power of industry. As Niebuhr notes, “When power is robbed of the shining armor of political, moral, and philosophical theories, by which it defends itself, it will fight on without armor; but it will be more vulnerable, and the strength of its enemies increased.”

The coal companies will continue to devise plausible arguments for as long as they are able. It is our job to not only rob them of that armor, but to build a voice that cannot be ignored; even by a group of politicians that does not want to hear it. The policy proposals to come out of this selective hearing are bound to be one-sided. As Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.”


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