WASHINGTON - They're concerned about jobs. They're concerned about providing for their families. They're concerned about the future of coal mining in West Virginia.
They're concerned enough to make a one-day trip on a bus from Logan to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sen. Joe Manchin to voice their support for a bill that would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its new Mercury and Air Toxic Standards Rule, which is scheduled for a vote today.
The 45 coal miners, family members and supporters who made the trek on Tuesday were all from southern West Virginia - specifically Boone, Logan and Mingo counties - some of the top coal-producing counties in the state.
The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce sponsored the transportation, and the miners and coal supporters who traveled were volunteers.
Some miners are retired, some remain employed and others have been laid off, but their support for the coal industry ties them, their families and other supporters together.
"When you come face-to-face with (legislators) and they see you, they are conscious (of the group's opinion)," said Dennis Adkins, a retired coal miner, Citizens for Coal member and a trip leader. "That's the purpose of the trip, and we want them to represent us."
Nearly everyone on the Washington journey wore a small "Friends of Coal" pin, and many wore coal-related clothing, with pro-coal messages written on the back.
As the bus traversed West Virginia's rugged southern mountains into the flatter Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, conversation ranged from family to jokes to personal backgrounds, but seemed to continue to revert back to coal. Many of the travelers knew one another from the mines or from other coal-related activities.
This 756-mile trip stemmed from the miners' concern over the Utility MACT rule, which from the EPA's standpoint, is targeted at reducing emissions, particularly mercury, from power plants nationwide.
According to the Congressional Research Service's report on the subject, the EPA estimates that with the rule, 11,000 premature deaths would be averted because of the rule, and other ailments, like asthma and developmental effects in children, would also be avoided.
The rule would require power plants to operate cleaner and reduce the amount of toxic compounds released into the atmosphere within three years (although in certain cases, an additional two-year extension may be granted). The report states that 56 percent of currently operating coal-fired power plants already have installed equipment that would meet the new requirements; thus, the rule is targeted at those plants which have not yet installed the equipment.
The EPA itself has estimated that the rule will have an estimated cost of $9.6 billion in 2015, making it one of the most costly EPA regulations ever. That cost would likely be transferred to consumers, causing electricity rates to rise in some areas.
From the miners' perspective, the rule is another part of what has been referred to as President Barack Obama's "War on Coal." The miners and the industry argue that such regulations are aimed at chipping away at the coal industry and coal-produced electricity.
Citizens for Coal President Roger Horton, a truck driver for a mining operation in Logan County, said he knows the effects of government policies on jobs: He was laid off as a miner during the 1980s during a time when the U.S. was importing coal.
"(The EPA) thinks of nothing other than what their discharge is ... without thinking about the consequences on the public," Horton said.
The group had a scheduled meeting with Manchin Tuesday afternoon, but were unable to schedule a meeting with West Virginia's other senator, Jay Rockefeller. (UPDATE: Rockefeller made a floor speech today, accusing the coal industry to modernize and to discontinue 'scare tactics.')
The group met with Manchin for over an hour in a senate conference room at the U.S. Capitol.
The House of Representatives already passed its version of the bill to stop Utility MACT from going into effect. If passed by the Senate, the bill faces a possible veto by President Obama.