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Coal Spill Puts Spotlight on Colombia’s Labor and Environmental Struggles

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A miner sits in front of the Cerrejón coal mine in Guajira, Colombia. Cerrejón is one of the major coal companies in the country who have come under fire for human rights and environmental violations. (Santiago la Rotta / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The Alabama-based Drummond Company’s recent coal spill in Colombia has combined with its record of labor abuse to place the coal giant at the intersection of the country’s political struggles and environmental crises.

In 2007, Colombia issued a mandate for coal exporters requiring Drummond Company to update its loading facilities at a key port in Cienaga by installing closed conveyor belts, a cleaner system than the traditional barges and cranes used to load coal. But Drummond has continuously failed to retool its operations. After a wrecked barge spilled hundreds of tons of coal into the port waters in 2013, Colombia imposed a $3.6 million fine on the company—and now, in a rare regulatory confrontation from the usually business-oriented regime, the government has suspended its port license to induce Drummond’s compliance.

The move seems aimed at demonstrating President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to environmental protection—perhaps as part of a broader campaign to strengthen ecological protections for politically tumultuous, resource-rich areas. Colombia has for years courted energy companies to use its mineral resources, and Drummond, a major exporter to Europe, is an established foreign investor.

Though the coal spill reportedly did not result in major long-term environmental damage, it became a sensation when a watchdog photographer, local attorney Alejandro Arias, widely publicized images of a crane hauling up coal and water from the barge and dropping it into the sea. In an interview with Bloomberg, Arias stated, “I want people in Europe to know that they’re heating themselves with coal that has caused pollution [in Colombia] … Royalties paid by mining companies here don’t nearly cover the costs of all this.”

Drummond vehemently defended the environmental soundness of its operations in an official statement, blaming its compliance failure in part on construction delays tied to last year’s mineworker strike. But the unrest that led to that labor action arguably stems from the same situation environmentalists blame for the dumping: the notorious impunity of many multinationals in the Global South, particularly in the energy sectors, which exploit poor countries’ resources and workers to feed carbon-burning industries abroad.

Colombia ranks among the world’s deadliest places to be a trade unionist, with thousands of union members murdered and brutalized over the past two decades. In 2013, union slayings did decline somewhat while the number of strikes increased—potentially suggesting a less oppressive climate for labor in the future. Whatever this year’s body count, however, violence continues to stalk workers who dare to organize. Last week, United Steel Workers and the international labor group IndustriALL issued letters condemning Colombia for its repeated failure to address anti-union assaults, citing the recent murder of Ever Luis Marin Rolong, an electrician and local leader of the SINALTRACEBA union.

And Drummond’s union workers have remained defiant despite the risks. Though it was hardly the first labor clash Drummond has had to deal with, the strike that started last summer made waves in global energy markets because it lasted for months and forced a partial suspension of Drummond’s export contracts. In a dispute over wages and layoffs, workers struck for more than 50 days. Eventually, the Labor Ministry intervened, and workers voted to end the strike under pressure (though one of the largest unions, Sintramienergetica, remained opposed).

But Drummond reportedly has a more sinister history when it comes to worker repression. Human rights groups have long accused the company of complicity in vicious anti-union hostilities, citing evidence gathered from union sources and Wikileaks documents. A major civil lawsuit in the U.S. courts was denied last year, but volumes of potentially damning testimony remain part of the public record.

In one testimony issued in October 2011, a witness who worked with Drummond in the 1990s and early 2000s claimed to have aided Drummond in brutalizing unionists:

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Coal Communities at the Pivot of Dirty Industries and Clean Energy

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Union of Concerned Scientists)

Originally posted on In These Times

To environmentalists, King Coal is headed for ruin, and the country’s old, dirty coal-powered plants symbolize the industry’s last dying gasps. But in an uncertain economy, coal is the only thing many working-class communities can cling to for stability.

That’s why when environmentalist tout the vision of a renewable energy future–lush with solar panels and wind turbines–regions that have long depended on the coal economy see only a dark cloud on the horizon. A new report from the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which makes a convincing economic and ecological case for phasing out an outmoded component of the coal industry, is unlikely to get a warm reception from them, either.

UCS researchers found that “up to 353 coal-fired generators in 31 states (out of a national total of 1,169) are ripe for retirement,” typically saddled with older, inefficient machinery linked to dirty air and carbon emissions that hurt both the climate and the local habitat. These deeply polluting facilities–concentrated “primarily in the Southeast and Midwest, with the top five (in order) being Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Michigan”–all together “represent as much as 18 percent of the country’s coal-generating capacity and approximately six percent of the nation’s power.” Retiring them would therefore get rid of a significant drag on the atmosphere and aid considerably in the budding transition to renewables. Read the rest of this entry →

Two Years After Fatal Disaster, Push to Protect Coal Miners Wears On

6:35 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Upper Big Branch memorial (Photo via ubbminersmemorial on Facebook)

Originally posted on In These Times

In late July, a somber crowd gathered before a long granite wall etched with the rough silhouettes of men standing against jagged mountain peaks. They represented the 29 miners who died in an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in 2010. The disaster initially jolted lawmakers to investigate safety conditions in mines, but today, King Coal still rules both in Appalachia and on Capitol Hill.

But some hope to chip away at the industry’s impunity by reforming the lax regulatory system. A new bill, introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), would impose stronger penalties on mine operators that knowingly cause or maintain safety problems like those that at Upper Big Branch. The legislation would also beef up the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) investigative powers.

According to a summary of the bill, companies that violate safety rules would face heavier punishment, including criminal penalties. One provision, which responds to reports that Massey had illegally manipulated its ventilation systems, would impose fines of more than $200,000 for unauthorized ventilation changes, which could “lessen clean air flow in the mines and increase the likelihood of explosions.”

The bill would give MSHA new subpoena power to probe witnesses and other evidence, such as safety records, during investigations. Another measure would explicitly bar companies from “Keeping Two Sets of Books”–a tactic mine operators may use to conceal unsafe conditions from regulators. Read the rest of this entry →

Unrest in Indonesia’s Mines: Local Chaos and Global Injustice

8:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Grasberg Mine (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Cross-posted from In These Times

Buried in Indonesia’s rich soil is a minefield of brutality, literally. Last year, the Grasberg mine of the Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold, one of the largest such operations in the world, shut down after thousands of workers launched a strike to demand higher wages. Work recently resumed, but the suffering continues while officials and multinationals maneuver to manage Southeast Asia’s resource curse.

In the midst of the massive strike, the company cited “sabotage and security concerns” and the blockade of a critical pipeline, and there were reports of internal conflicts among employees. But the worst impact of the chaos fell on the workers who were mysteriously gunned down. The exact source of the attacks is unclear, but they could be tied into a long-running struggle for control over local mineral assets between the police and military.

Mine workers weren’t the only ones being targeted. While strikers and police clashed in October, leading to the deaths of two unionists, indigenous activists in Jayapura, West Papua, were reportedly struck with batons and bullets at a pro-independence rally.

The unrest surrounding Grasberg exposed both the vulnerability of organized labor and the brute power of the industry. From its Phoenix headquarters, Freeport’s global empire stretches across various political hotspots: Indonesia, Peru, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Read the rest of this entry →

Mine Workers Struggle for Safety Underground, Justice in the Streets

1:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

 

National Union of Mineworkers protest (libcom.org)

Cross-posted from In These Times
 

As thousands take to the streets to protest global corporate domination, the power struggles just below the earth’s surface remain outside the media spotlight. But over the past few weeks, turmoil in the mining industry has also spoken to the divide between the corporate elite and the impoverished multitudes–a faultline running through communities mired in poverty but rich in resources.

Papua’s gold battleground

In Papua, Indonesia, the American gold and copper giant Freeport McMoRan
had to shut down a facility on Monday after protesting workers set up roadblocks. The standoff at Grasberg followed a recent deadly clash between protesters and police—the culmination of an earlier strike that turned out thousands of workers demanding major wage increases. Read the rest of this entry →