Ronnie Bryant was vastly outnumbered.
Leaning against a wall during a recent Birmingham, Alabama, public hearing, Bryant listened to an overflow crowd pepper federal officials with concerns about businesses polluting the drinking water and causing cases of cancer.
After two hours, Bryant—a coal mine owner from Jasper—had heard enough and, in a moment being described as “right out of Atlas Shrugged,” took his turn at the microphone:
“Nearly every day without fail…men stream to these [mining] operations looking for work in Walker County. They can’t pay their mortgage. They can’t pay their car note. They can’t feed their families. They don’t have health insurance. And as I stand here today, I just…you know…what’s the use? I got a permit to open up an underground coal mine that would employ probably 125 people. They’d be paid wages from $50,000 to $150,000 a year. We would consume probably $50 million to $60 million in consumables a year, putting more men to work. And my only idea today is to go home. What’s the use? I see these guys—I see them with tears in their eyes—looking for work. And if there’s so much opposition to these guys making a living, I feel like there’s no need in me putting out the effort to provide work for them. So…basically what I’ve decided is not to open the mine. I’m just quitting. Thank you.”
The Blaze contacted Bryant, and he remains as resolute as he was at last week’s public hearing. To him, it’s just not worth the time, money, and regulatory hassle to open up a new mine—even one located in a remote area with less environmental impact.
“If they want to create jobs, provide health insurance, and increase revenue,” Bryant said in reference to the federal government, “they need to back down on the regulatory burden. It’s like pulling an iron ball with a chain. I’m not saying to make it go away—just the stuff that’s not pertinent or useful.”
Terry Douglas, who owns two mines in Jasper with Bryant, said it costs them about $250,000 per mine in permit fees alone and that paperwork and regulatory inspections are a constant presence (as well as an additional revenue strain). When asked about typical concerns surrounding coal mining—including companies skirting health and safety regulations—Douglas said it “doesn’t make sense” to let safety lapse and risk losing miners to illness or injury when it would only cost more to train new personnel.
“We take care of our equipment and take care of our people,” Douglas said. “The regulations make coal miners out to be criminals; but we’re not outlaws. Coal mining is an art. I have a civil engineering degree; Ronnie has a mining engineering degree. It’s not wildcat whiskey we’re making; this is drinking whiskey we got.”
Bryant pointed to less stringent environmental regulations in countries such as China, saying that the U.S. is falling behind even though it has abundant resources. “But you can’t get to them,” he said, adding that while there are concerns over dwindling wildlife populations, “people are becoming the endangered species.”
Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, regional administrator for EPA’s Southeast Region, attended the Birmingham public hearing but could not be reached for comment.
(h/t David McElroy)