Voices

A Retired Miner is Fighting for Those Left Behind When Coal Leaves Town

An unlikely activist is fighting for jobs and a cleaner city.

by Meg Charlton
Jul 14 2017, 9:00pm

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

Pittsburgh's old nickname was "hell with the lid off." The coal and steel plants surrounding the city would produce a cloud of pollution so thick that in the 1940s, street lamps had to be lit during the day because the sun couldn't penetrate the smog.

Dan Kremer, a former coal miner and current activist, breathed that air in his younger years. "I remember the days when I was a child," he says, "and you could see the orange haze over Pittsburgh."

But orange haze or no, like his father before him, Dan Kremer went to work in the coal mines. The work was lucrative and rich with camaraderie but harrowing — the vein in the first mine he worked was only 3 -4 feet high.

"Some of the areas," he said, "you could catch your back crawling through on all fours."

That mine closed in 1979, but Kremer stayed in the business until 2005. Then, when the latest mine he was working at shut down, he decided it was time to get out. Kremer had accurately read the state of his industry. In 2005, the year he quit, there were 350 active mines in Pennsylvania, down from 368 just four years earlier. By 2015, that number had plummeted to 283.


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Kremer looked at his options for retraining — weighing what would be a growing field, what would pay him what he was accustomed to — and began training to become a respiratory therapist. He was 53 years old. He had been working in the mines since he was 21.

It wasn't an easy transition, even with a supportive wife and family. Because of a pre-existing condition, Kremer couldn't get health care and had to pay $1000 a month through COBRA to stay on his old plan and keep his family insured. Kremer recalls one fellow miner considered making the switch but going from $55,000 or more a year to scraping by wasn't something he could afford to do.

"He didn't want his family to suffer the hardships of retraining and he went back to the mines. Within one year, he died in a mining accident."

"The consequences of our work are real and we need to be careful in what we advocate for."

Kremer is now 65 and recently retired to a life of full-time organizing and activism. Eva Resnick-Day, a Sierra Club organizer in Pittsburgh, met Kremer through his activist work with the Murphy Resistance, which fights for the human and environmental rights of mining communities. Resnick-Day invited Kremer to speak at a rally in Pittsburgh, celebrating Mayor Peduto's commitment to moving the city to 100 percent renewable energy. They were assembling just days after the city's triumphant clap-back to Trump's statement that he represented them and not Paris.

Read more: Coal Workers Can Expect a Pay Bump by Getting a Job in Solar Energy

"We go to these rallies and have big exciting moments and everything is so positive and I think a lot of the people at the rally were really taken aback in a powerful way," she says. "The consequences of our work are real and we need to be careful in what we advocate for."

Resnick-Day says that Kremer's motivations for advocating for clean energy come less from environmental reasons and more from economic ones. Steam coal, the coal used for power plants, is on its way out, no matter what President Trump says. And the communities that commodity leaves behind need real solutions to fill the void. But Kremer, for his part, has not always felt that heard by fellow activists. He recalled four years ago, testifying before the Department of Environmental Protection about emissions from power plants, and being the lone voice among the activists who wasn't gung-ho about the plant closures.

"You gotta get out and look at these communities and look at the people and what they're going through and realize there's more to the problem solving than just solving the environment and cleaning the environment. Their lives mean something too," he says. "The way I felt when I was down in Harrisburg and testified [before the DEP], it felt like they said, 'Just disappear.'"

"It's not just that we want to protect our streams or our air. It's the people that matter."

Resnick-Day says the Sierra Club Club is paying attention. Working with Kremer has made it clear that getting Pittsburgh to 100% clean energy can't be the only goal; any solution has to think regionally and make the needs of coal communities and their families a part of the process. That means legislation and funding to support retraining, health care and retirement funds and rebuilding areas decimated by the departure of their lifeline.

A public official at the rally was so moved by Kremer's story, he found Resnick-Day afterward to tell her this was the story they needed to be sharing to show what was needed for Pittsburgh. "It's not just that we want to protect our streams or our air," he said. "It's the people that matter."

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