Trading the Environment for Coal

The American Right has grabbed a sizable voting bloc of working- and middle-class men by pitting jobs from coal against the environment. In the short term, this dichotomy seems to make sense since it’s important to pay the bills but it is a mid- to long-range disaster, says former steel worker Lee Ballinger.

By Lee Ballinger

I know what it’s like to depend upon coal to feed a family. Many years ago I worked at a steel mill in Ohio. My job was at the coke plant where West Virginia coal was turned into coking coal for the blast furnace.

The top of the coke ovens was an area the size of a football field where monstrous machines funneled coal into the ovens. It was my job to put the heavy oven lids back on nice and tight.  It was literally as hot as hell up there. It felt like walking barefoot on hot coals.

Coal cars in Ashtabula, Ohio. (Photo credit: Decumanus)

The air we breathed was truly foul but to us it was the sweet smell of something like success. We called it the smell of money because it paid the bills.

Yet as soon as I got a chance to escape the coke ovens, I took it. I got a job bid on a crew at the blast furnace. But I couldn’t escape the coal. Like the devil or a bad check, coal will find you. It followed me to the blast furnace.

Big railroad cars full of coking coal arrived at the blast furnace every two or three hours. In the winter it would get as cold as 20 below zero and the coal would freeze solid into one huge mass. The company said under no circumstances were we to climb into the open-top railroad cars to break up the coal. But the company also made it clear we better hurry up and get that coal offloaded.

So in we went, carrying big torches to heat the coal and pry bars to break it up. We prayed that it wouldn’t loosen all at once with the possibility that we might go down the chute with it. Many times on a cold winter night I had to look in on my sleeping babies to motivate myself to leave for work on midnight shift.

There was a small group of environmentalists in town who kept raising hell about the pollution from the steel mills. I understood their point. After all, I was more directly affected by pollution than they were. But they didn’t even give lip service to our need to feed our families.

So I dismissed them out of hand. In fact, I hated them and feared the changes they might be able to bring about. Jobs or the environment? An easy choice to make. Jobs are more important.

Eventually I was permanently downsized from the mill. The loss of my job caused severe dislocation for my family. It also caused dislocation in my mind, creating an opening, a new space. Facts and events that had once gone in one ear and out the other began to find a place in my thinking.

Global warming. Poisoned rivers and oceans. Black lung disease. Hurricane Katrina. Oil spills. Coal-fired power plants spewing acid and deadly metals into our air.

Slowly and not always surely, I began to realize that the environmentalists I had once rejected as extremists were correct when they said that fossil fuels are destroying the earth. Coal and oil aren’t just causing some problems we can learn to live with in pursuit of economic survival. They are going to make it impossible for humans to live on this planet.

Jobs or the environment? Posing the question that way eliminates any chance of coming up with answers and it ignores the people who live at ground zero of the debate. I know first-hand what goes through the minds of coal miners as they sit at the kitchen table facing a pile of bills.

“Yes, I know what some people say about what we do. They may even be right. But just give me one more month on this job so I can pay the rent and the electric and the credit card bill. Then maybe one more month after that and another after that until the youngest finishes school.”

Jobs or the environment? Soon it will be too late and we will have neither. Unless we come together under the banner of both.

Excerpted from the upcoming book Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing by Lee Ballinger. If you would like to make a comment or to be notified when the book is published, please email or go to



4 comments for “Trading the Environment for Coal

  1. F. G. Sanford
    June 19, 2012 at 02:13

    When I was a kid, my uncle used to take me into a little tavern in rural West Virginia. They served bottled beer, Danish sausages and pickled eggs. It had a pot-belly stove in the middle of the room, and a “punch board”, a primitive form of gambling. He’d buy me cokes and peanuts, and let me drive the car home. All in all, a big adventure for a twelve year old kid. What I remember more than anything else was that except for me and my uncle, hardly anybody else in there had all ten fingers. One of them was missing a leg. Coal miners and lumberjacks all of them. What I realize now, almost fifty years later, is that they were the lucky ones…they were still alive.

  2. June 16, 2012 at 19:50

    Nicely said, Mr. Ballinger.

    It’s been a false dichotomy all along, and using words like “environmentalists,” so long ago applied by the other side to people who wanted to keep being able to live on this planet, deliberately broadened the divide.

    That’s why, in the struggle against mountaintop removal here in Appalachia, I insist on discussing it as a human rights issue. We who get no paycheck from it still subsidize it with our hearts, lungs, brains and those even of our unborn.

    We can go about thirty days without food, about three without water, but less than five minutes without air and preciesly ZERO time at all without a life-supporting planet. Thanks very much for pointing that out.

  3. June 16, 2012 at 19:11

    Mr. Ballinger, your thoughts are so American — the best of America.

  4. Jerry Horvath
    June 16, 2012 at 16:06

    In the Pacific Northwest, there is a corporate movement to develop a coal port along the shore of Puget Sound. It is my understanding this will mean several massive coal trains per day to and from the coal port. This will provide a continuous stream of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming to China. The proposed port has the enthusiastic support of mining interest and is opposed by Puget Sound residents.


Comments are closed.