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Gazette-Mail editorial: Russians' use of WV miner's photo appalling

By now, thanks to the Mueller report, most everyone has learned of the extent to which Russian troll farms and hackers went to interfere with the 2016 election and sow discord among Americans in general.

One of their pieces of propaganda was a leaflet touting Trump’s support for coal miners in Pennsylvania, with an image of a miner covered in dust and soot. The image was from 1976, and the man in that photo, who actually worked in West Virginia, has been dead for decades, his life taken by black lung disease in 1987.

The man is Lee Hipshire. He was 57 when he died. The photo was taken by Earl Dotter. Naturally, the Russians didn’t seek Dotter’s or Hipshire’s family’s permission to use the photograph.

Here in West Virginia, it’s just another example of miners being exploited for political gain, even if not by traditional methods.

Hipshire’s son, Ronnie, was understandably upset to learn about what happened. He told The Washington Post his father “wouldn’t like that [the photo] was used by Russian trolls to better the Republican Party and the Trump Agenda.”

Dotter told The Post he was “outraged.”

“I thought it was a fake message to garner support, and, two years into Trump’s presidency, I think it’s pretty obvious there hasn’t been thoughtful ways to make coal miners whole.”

There have been plenty of less-than-thoughtful ideas from Trump and company, though those efforts have been on behalf of the mine owners, not the miners themselves. The Trump administration has put forth massive rollbacks of environmental pollution policies to try and help the slowly dying coal industry. Hipshire’s image is a perfect representation of that imbalance of power.

Black lung rates are surging and at a 25-year-high. With most coal seams in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia depleted, miners have to cut through more sandstone to get to the coal, and it turns out that silica dust from sandstone is just as lethal, if not more, than coal dust. Regulation of silica dust is not just a Trump problem. Several administrations going back to the 1990s have had chances to take action on that problem and failed.

Of course, letting mining operations pollute more hasn’t done much to spark another boom in coal, though thinking it would gives a disturbing glance into how the minds of this administration work. Energy companies long ago started enacting plans to shutter coal-fired plants and develop more diverse sources for power production. Low natural gas costs have also played a huge part in coal’s decline.

Whether it’s Russian trolls distributing a pamphlet and circulating an image online, or Trump putting on a hard hat in Charleston and miming digging with a shovel, it’s all been one big con. While the real answer to the decline of coal is elusive, embracing outdated ideals and continuing to exploit the workforce can’t be the answer. West Virginia owes its miners more than that.