My blog of June 5, 2014, “Coal is a dirty business” did not sit well with David K. Smith, general manager, River Marine Enterprises, Paducah, Ky. 

My blog was about exporting so-called dirty coal — highest in sulfur and ash content. In Kevin Horn’s Inland Insider column, “Coal: A dirty business,” from the July issue of WorkBoat, he said, “…this coal is not attractive to domestic utility markets where demand for much higher quality coal is declining in the face of stricter emission standards and natural gas competition.”

However, there is a market for this commodity in other parts of the world. At no time did I refer to dirty coal that is transported for energy use in the U.S.

Smith took my blog content as an attack against the coal industry as a whole rather than questioning the justification of shipping "dirty" coal to other parts of the world to be burned. In his letter, Smith said, “…you state that ‘Scientists tell us that burning coal puts some really nasty emissions into the atmosphere.’ I can only assume you mean the ‘scientists’ that subscribe to the global warming theory, since in paragraph 6 you imply that a ‘barge company’ would help save the environment if it turned down coal business. So, in truth, you should have said ‘some scientists’ rather than the all encompassing term ‘scientists,’ as not all scientists embrace the global warming theory, and neither do I.”

Mr. Smith is right. I do think there is something to global warming or as it’s called today, climate change. If Mr. Smith is saying that the burning of dirty coal is not harmful to the atmosphere, I disagree. The point I raised is that if this exported coal we are talking about here is so dirty that we don’t burn it in this country, it doesn’t make much sense to send it elsewhere to be burned. No matter where in the world it’s burned, it goes into one atmosphere. No one should be burning it. But if I stood to make money either by selling it or transporting it, would I feel the same way? I said I wouldn’t. I’d go for the money. Mr. Smith is also right about the fact that I should have said “some scientists.”

“I am a fourth generation riverman and take great pride in my profession,” Smith wrote later in his letter. “I feel no guilt whatsoever in the part I play in the transport of such a vital commodity as coal. Coal is a national treasure that this country has been blessed with. Indeed, we could never have achieved the past levels of greatness this country has seen without it, and no matter how much you…and others of your self-righteous liberal bent wish to vilify it, the country cannot survive without it today.”

Even though Mr. Smith wants to make it one; for me, this is not a political issue. Everything is not about politics. Yes, coal has been a vital part of the industrial revolution in the United States. But was the diesel engine developed because of a political agenda against coal or because it was a more efficient means of powering ships and trains?

“Great strides have been made in clean coal technology in recent years, but those of your ilk seem to ignore that and would rather erase jobs, devastate communities and decimate industry in order to promote your ideals,” Smith wrote at the end of his letter, adding that WorkBoat was not a friend of his industry.

First of all, I didn’t say a word about clean coal. Secondly, the amount of coal being carried along our waterways has dropped in recent years; consequently, companies like River Marine Enterprises have been negatively affected. For that, I take no pleasure. I never said I was in favor of anyone losing his or her job. I never said I take gratification in seeing communities devastated or the industry decimated. 

Coal continues to be a large part of the U.S. energy picture and will be for some years to come. On the global stage, it provides more than 40 percent of the world’s energy needs. But public perception of coal is having its effect. The burning of coal as an energy source is on the decline, even in coal dependent nations like China and India, changes are underway.

“China's government has pledged to roughly double the percentage of electricity the country gets from non-fossil sources, to 15% from 8%, by 2020,” said the Wall Street Journal back in 2010. “India, meanwhile, has agreed to cut its carbon emissions 20% from 2005 levels by 2020.” This is nothing new.

I have great respect and admiration for the men and women who operate along the U.S. inland waterways. I have written many times about issues that are important to the American Waterways Operators’ general membership, of which WorkBoat is an associate member.

Your frustration is understandable. I’m sure the future holds new commodities for you to haul. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of coal that needs to be moved.

Thanks for reading “The Hocke Net” and for taking the time to write. By the way, I like that word — “ilk.” Best of luck.


Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.