Over the past couple of days, posts on other blogs have brought to mind jobs I’ve held in the past. Marc on The Valve wrote about UPS’s exploitation of students working the midnight shift, which is a part-time job I once held. And at American Stranger, Traxus described attempts to counteract the wide-scale environmental destruction wrought by coal strip mining. I was never a coal miner, though my great-grandfather and his brothers were. But I once did a mining-related job, as I outlined on Traxus’s post:
These posts bring to mind my first job after I got out of school, working for a surety company in Chicago. Surety bonds guarantee the performance of contracts. One type of suretyship is the land reclamation bond. In order to get governmental permission to strip mine a particular piece of land, the mining company has to comply with state and/or federal regulations for restoring the land. If the mining company fails to do so, the surety company has to step in and pay for the work to be done.
Mining is a speculative operation, like drilling in There Will Be Blood. Paying for the land reclamation comes out of the profits from the mining itself. If the lode turns out not to be a very rich one, then the mining company has to eat the land reclamation costs. In order to qualify for such a bond, therefore, the mining company has to be very rich.
So, I was a surety underwriting trainee in the Midwest regional office, which included Kentucky. So I got to see the financial statements of a lot of these coal companies. As I recall a lot of them were shell corporations organized around a particular mining project, so there wasn’t a lot of corporate money to be had. The real money was in the personal financial statements of the owners, who joined together in various small partnership arrangements which interlocked into a a network of maybe a couple dozen really wealthy individuals. Every year the surety VPs would fly down to KY purportedly to inspect the reclamation work, to investigate profitability of the mining operations, etc. What I think really happened was that the mining honchos would wine and dine the surety guys, fly them around in private helicopters, flash a lot of cash, visit the thoroughbred farms, probably pay a call on the high-class call girls, etc. I suspect they played the same games with the Dept. of the Interior boys, showing them what a fine job they were doing and showing them a good time along with it.
Environmentalism isn’t a new concern in this country or even in mining areas, as you point out. Still, at the time (late-70s) it was rare for a claim to be filed against one of these mining operations for defaulting on the reclamation requirements. Before they started mining a new lode they’d have to file a reclamation plan with the government regulators. Based on that plan the regulators would set the required amount of surety bond to guarantee completion of the reclamation work. My sense was that the mine-owning gentlemen, through their close personal and financial ties with local and federal authorities, were always able to negotiate pretty minimal reclamation requirements. This was probably the sort of favors Dick Cheney handed out the the mine owners of Wyoming when he was a congressman there.
So it seems to me that the issue isn’t coal company compliance with reclamation and contamination requirements; rather, it’s toughening up those requirements at the state and federal governmental level. I have no idea what’s happened in the intervening 30 years, but my bet is that the requirements have gotten ever more lenient as the government has moved further to the right especially on energy-related concerns.
Thinking back on it, I don’t recall worrying about any of this at the time. My job was to evaluate the financial strength of the mining companies relative to the amount of risk involved for my company. I was a trainee, learning how to make these sorts of judgments. I would review the files, work up an evaluation, and present it to my boss. Then we’d discuss the case’s pros and cons, issues I had failed to consider, ways of evaluating financial situations unique to the mining industry, nuances of the land reclamation specs, and so on. I never saw an actual coal mine or reclamation project while I worked on this job. It was all a matter of paper: contracts, financial statements, memos to file, correspondence. And for me personally it was about doing a good job, acquiring technical expertise and business acumen and sound financial judgment. If I considered the environmental impact of the work I was doing, I would have said that I was working on the side of good, of making sure that the mine sites were restored functionally and aesthetically.
In retrospect I see this job differently. The question that comes to mind now is this: what would it have taken to make me think more carefully about this job back then, while I was still doing it? Was the evidence of systemic malfeasance right there in front of me, staring back at me from the well-documented files? I don’t think so. The work was abstract, involving words and numbers rather than people and land. And the purpose of the work was entirely and explicitly reducible to money: risk versus return for my company. That from an early age I had frequently seen the acres of unreclaimed strip mine tailings near my grandparents’ home town, that some of my forebears had died in the mines, didn’t really concern me very much, other than to consider how much better land reclamation had gotten and how much safer my own job was compared to theirs. If someone had asked me then, I’d have said that my work contributed to cleaning up the environment.
If I was going to think more deeply about the overall environmental impact of coal mining, about the finances of the energy industry, about political enablement on behalf of owners rather than workers or citizens, I’d have had to do it on my own time. And that’s not what I felt like doing at the end of the workday. Certainly my heightened political-economic awareness wouldn’t have helped me do my job more efficiently. My boss might have listened politely for a few minutes, then moved on to the task at hand, the task we were both getting paid to do. I could have recommended not writing any more strip mining reclamation bonds, but on what grounds? The mining companies were our clients; their fees paid our salaries.
I had just graduated from college when I started doing this job, but I wasn’t too young to think about these things. Was I more morally corrupt, more self-absorbed, more money-hungry than the committed leftists and the greens? If so, what would have jarred me enough to think differently at the time? Would I have made a case internal to my company to get out of the strip mine reclamation guarantee business? That wouldn’t have worked. Would I have quit? I did that anyway, two and a half years and two transfers later, not in protest but in pursuit of other interests. Would I have used what I’d learned to take some sort of action against the coal mining companies? Maybe, as long as I could have done it on the side and with somebody else leading the charge. Would it have made any difference? It’s hard to say, but then again I doubt whether anything else I’ve done since then has made much of a difference either. Does thinking about it now, three decades later, do anything to reclaim me, or is it just another source of regret over lost opportunities?