American Labor is Part of the Environment, Too.

American Labor is Part of the Environment, Too.


The Obama Administration drafts and implements rules every day. The rules are usually written with the input of various stakeholders and approved with the intent of implementing some statute that gave policymakers permission to draft and implement the rules in the first place.

It’s rare when labor is at the table when rules are being thought about, much less written. Let’s face it. Most rules are primarily about regulating the behavior of some industry player like a telephone company or a power plant. A wireless carrier or broadcast station may broadcast on certain frequencies or a power plant may only emit so many parts of nitrogen oxide per part of oxygen.

Sometimes rules regulate the relationship between consumer and producer. Some telecommunications companies are subject to rate of return regulation, where a percentage return on assets is set by a regulatory agency and the company is allowed to set a rate that captures that return on assets. Some energy companies are subject to rate bands where they may price within certain price ceilings.

Although consumers are given the opportunity to file written comments or attend hearings and speak for two or three minutes about a rule, for the most part there is rarely if any analysis conducted where an agency takes into account the economic impact a rule may have on the average consumer. Orders from a state public utility commission never include any specific rigorous quantitative analysis of how certain initiatives may impact American labor.

Grass roots groups appear to ignore the economic impact on real workers opting instead for the Don Quixote swing at the windmill, issues that draw bigger attention and probably bigger donations. Net neutrality was a glaring example of grass roots groups not addressing the impact these restrictive rules would have on the economy, particularly in the African American and Latino communities. We are seeing the same behavior by environmentalists as they push for rules that would treat coal ash as hazardous material.

On 18 January 2012, Earthjustice, representing a number of environmental advocates that included Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, sent the federal Environmental Protection Agency a letter requesting rules that would designate and treat coal ash as hazardous material.

Coal ash is the waste or residue generated from the combustion of coal. The ash is typically stored in lagoons or landfills in close proximity to power plants. Currently, coal ash is not regulated or treated for storage as a hazardous waste material. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, coal ash has a number of uses including

• Land fills
• Soil substitutes
• Manufacture of concrete
• Road surface preparation material
• Mine fire control

In the letter, Earthjustice complained that the EPA failed to properly measure the toxicity levels of coal ash; establish guidelines to protect ground and surface water; and define prohibited open dumping.

On the opposite side of the argument, The Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy has taken the position that if the lawsuit is successful and the EPA promulgates rules to the liking of the environmental groups, there would be severe economic consequences.

“The type of lawsuit has become pattern in practice for environmental groups whose real goal is to shut down fossil power in the United States,” explains PACE Executive Director Lance Brown. “The most stringent coal ash proposals could endanger the very viability of half the nation’s power production capacity. The EPA, seemingly unconcerned with reliability or cost issues, welcomes such lawsuits.”

According to PACE, job losses could amount to approximately 316,000 with approximately $110 billion in costs over a twenty-year period.

Earthjustice offered no analysis of the economic impact taking coal ash out of productive use and storing it as a hazardous material would have on workers.

The impact may be substantial on both the African American and Latino communities.

Take for example highway maintenance workers. As mentioned above, coal ash is used to surface highways. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, highway maintenance saw the greatest increase in construction employment between May 2006 and May 2010. However, unemployment in the construction industry has been very high with unemployment hitting 18.4% in January.

According to its May 2010 Current Population Survey data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that approximately 15,620 African Americans were employed as highway maintenance workers, while 12,100 Hispanics were employed in this occupation. These individuals may be involved in road patching activities that involve the use of coal ash.

Reclassifying coal ash as a hazardous material may impact their job duties and their skills requirements. These employees may have to be trained in the removal, packaging, transportation, and disposal of corrosive, reactive, ignitable, or toxic material. They will also have to be trained in the uses of other equipment, including protective suits and respirators.

The costs of labor may increase both for government highway transportation agencies and private entities that do this work on contract basis if they are required to have their crews certified to handle hazardous materials. Cost increases of this nature may put some private firms out of business or see government agencies delay work on infrastructure.

Should government agencies or private firms have to cut back on highway maintenance work because of increasing costs of training, it appears that African American and Hispanic workers will be hurt the most.