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Thursday, June 9, 2011 08:27 am

Nothing merry about Old King Coal

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If some predator were stalking fourth-graders in your community, there’d be a mighty uproar to make the predator get away and stay away from your schools.

But what if the stalker is the coal industry, dressed in an academic outfit in order to get into fourth-grade classrooms and brainwash the kids? Unbeknownst to most Americans, grade-schoolers are being targeted by the American Coal Foundation with a propaganda package stealthily titled, “The United States of Energy.”

It’s not mentioned in the materials, but Big Coal paid big bucks to Scholastic Inc. to develop this shamelessly distorted promotion of the dirtiest fuel on earth. The package fills little minds with the joys of having 600 friendly, coal-fueled utilities generating electricity 24 hours a day. Not a peep is made about any of coal’s long litany of negatives – including toxic waste, air and water pollution, mine explosions, black lung deaths, mountaintop destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, political corruption and other decidedly unfriendly aspects of what industry propagandists simply tout as “black gold.”

This printed “educational package” has been distributed to 66,000 fourth-grade teachers, potentially putting its perverted view into the heads of more than a million children. Another 82,000 teachers of fourth-graders were asked to download the package online.

Of course, the coal giants could not have entered so many schools on their own, so they bought access to our kids through Scholastic, a $2-billion-a-year corporation that says it places its books and materials in nine out of 10 U.S. classrooms. Indeed, Scholastic’s InSchool marketing division brags of its ability to “promote client objectives” by targeting teachers and students with classroom packages that “make a difference by influencing attitudes and behavior.”

How sweet. Friends of the Earth calls Scholastic’s coal whitewash the “worst kind of corporate brainwashing.”

For a less saccharin take on the industry, check out a West Virginia report issued last month on Massey Energy, a $3.4 billion coal giant that is the most dominant in Appalachia. It is also among the most reckless of corporations, earning hundreds of mine safety citations every year.

In 2010, its notoriously unsafe Upper Big Branch Mine exploded, killing 29 miners. Massey’s careless honchos rushed out to declare total innocence: couldn’t have been predicted, much less prevented, they insisted.

Even the Brothers Grimm could not have come up with a fairy tale as fanciful – or as grim – as the one concocted by these executives. According to them, the blast was caused by a giant ball of methane that mysteriously bubbled from the ground and blew up the men. Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!

What a fantasy.

Now for the grim reality. In an unusually blunt report commissioned by the state, an independent team of mining experts puts the blame for the West Virginia disaster directly on Massey Energy’s bosses and investors.

“An accident waiting to happen,” says the report, showing that the corporation “operated in a profoundly reckless manner.” By disregarding safety in the pursuit of another almighty dollar, executives illegally allowed an intolerable level of explosive coal dust to accumulate, carrying the blast through the mine to kill men far from the first detonation.

Massey also built “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable,” say the investigators. Worker safety complaints were met with intimidation, safety inspectors were cast as “enemies,” and Massey used campaign contributions to keep public officials from cracking down.

Meanwhile – more than a year after the 29 men were killed – congressional Republicans and a few coal-state Democrats are still blocking reforms to stop the murderous malfeasance of corporate powers like Massey. To help break their stranglehold, and to honor those men who paid with their lives for coalfield greed, contact Council for Occupational Safety and Health: www.coshnetwork.org.  

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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