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How government can pay its debt to coal country

The decline of coal as a source of electric power is inevitable and well under way. This is a good thing, because whether measured by its effect on public health or its contribution to global warming, coal is more harmful than any other widely used source of electricity.

But there’s a human cost to this transition: unemployment in coal country. Over the past five years, as the U.S. coal mining industry has lost 94 percent of its market value, some 15,000 jobs have disappeared in West Virginia and Kentucky alone. West Virginia’s Boone County and Kentucky’s Union County have lost roughly one job for every 24 residents.

Although the pain has been cruelly concentrated, it should be of national concern. That’s not because the government is to blame; more than anything else, the low price of natural gas has undermined the market value of coal-fired power. But coal’s decline is accelerated by public policies designed to reduce deaths from air pollution and limit climate change. And while the government is right to restrict coal’s emissions, it should also help people deal with the consequences.

The regions that are suffering are ill-equipped to cope on their own.

The Obama administration has asked Congress to support a range of initiatives to help, including more job training. It also wants to direct the surplus in the federal abandoned mine lands fund, which is bankrolled by coal companies to clean up old mines, toward projects that create local employment. Providing wider broadband Internet service could help, too, by giving people more opportunities to access new markets. Congress has shamefully ignored the administration’s requests.

The administration also wants Congress to pay the pension and health care obligations of coal mining companies that have gone bankrupt. This is a more challenging proposition, because it risks creating a precedent for beneficiaries of underfunded pension plans in other industries. But if the assistance can be arranged in a way that protects taxpayers from future claims, Congress should pay for this, too. The best way to support coal workers is to ensure they get the benefits they’ve already earned.

In opposing these changes, Republicans argue that the best way for the government to help coal workers is to turn back regulations on air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. That would sacrifice the broader public good and still fail to save the industry. The time when coal was king is past; what the communities it once sustained need now are alternatives.

Bloomberg View, Jan. 26

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Fatal overdoses are reversing recent health gains

A national heroin and opiate epidemic has reversed health gains — especially among white Americans — that have resulted from medical advances. Drug overdoses are driving up death rates for young white adults to levels not seen for decades.

Findings from recent public health studies underscore the need for more intense prevention and treatment practices, as well as bolstered electronic databases that track the dispensing of opioids.

In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites, ages 25 to 34, was five times the 1999 level, while the rate for 35-to-44-year-old whites tripled, according to a New York Times analysis.

Overdose deaths for young black adults have edged up, but only slightly. Overall, a decline in deaths from AIDS has contributed to a falling death rate for African-Americans. As a result, the former chasm between death rates for blacks and whites has shrunk by two-thirds.

Even among whites, death rates for those with less education rose much faster than for those with college degrees. Public health agencies must find more effective ways of targeting education and prevention efforts to lower-income people with less education.

Education programs, targeted at both patients and physicians, can cut the abuse of prescription painkillers that can lead to heroin use. For those already addicted, medication-assisted treatment has shown far higher recovery rates.

Without more intense treatment and prevention, the epidemic will only grow.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 26

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