For mother, stakes are high in debate over coal, air
September 9, 2014
As the Environmental Protection Agency considers imposing carbon emission limits on coal-fired power plants, Craig miner Sarah Lewis fears that more than just her livelihood could be at stake.
She also fears for her sons' lives.
As the EPA tries to respond to the global threat of climate change, the threat that Lewis faces is highly personal. She worries that rules that could threaten coal-fired power production could cost her her job at Peabody Energy's Twentymile Mine near Oak Creek and, perhaps more importantly, the health insurance that comes along with it.
That insurance, which Lewis understands to be some of the best available in the Craig area, has helped the 36-year-old cope with extensive health issues involving three of her children. In the case of sons Tracer Hayes, 2, and David "Willie" Lewis, 13, it pays 80 percent of the cost of monthly, $10,000 intravenous infusions of immunoglobulin, a potentially life-saving treatment for their extremely rare immune deficiency disease.
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"If I were to lose my job over the new regulations … if I can't pay for their infusions, then from my standpoint and from what the doctors have told me, my boys could die. Is it a guarantee? No, but it's very possible," Lewis said.
Lewis generally has been fairly private about her family's situation until recently, when she contacted Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid to offer to share her story publicly in the hope that the EPA will consider the possible impacts as it mulls its proposed rules.
War on coal?
Thanks to a campaign led by Kinkaid, EPA officials including Region 8 Administrator Shaun McGrath have agreed to visit Craig on Wednesday and Thursday to hear from locals concerned about the impacts of its proposal on Craig's coal-based economy, and visit a local mine along with Tri-State Generation and Transmission's coal-fired power plant outside Craig. Lewis hopes to attend Wednesday's public meeting with the EPA — which starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Moffat County High School — to voice her concerns.
"For me to come to (the media) — I'm a very prideful person, so it took a lot just to contact John Kinkaid," Lewis said. "But I feel if you take my job away, there's more on the line than just my job. … It wouldn't be just a job that I would lose."
Kinkaid said Moffat County has already seen the effects of "the war on coal" and noted the county still hasn't emerged from the recession.
"We haven't recovered here. In fact, we have hundreds of homes that are on the market here that people are trying to sell. I can't help but think that a lot of them are miners that have moved on," he said, pointing to layoffs and job reductions through attrition at Twentymile.
He said of Lewis, "Here you have a mom who has all these hurdles that she has on her path, with her family and their health problems. This is her lifeline to better her family and keep them going. We can't take that away. To me that's morally wrong, to take that away, especially for the government to do that, even if it's indirectly."
Nothing about closing
Scott Harrell, human resources director at the mine, said coal mine officials are concerned about what the EPA is doing and how the agency is "overreaching."
"Anybody who's associated with the coal industry or associated with coal-fired power plants should be concerned," he said.
Lewis also worries the EPA rules could drive up energy costs, something she fears a lot of struggling families can't afford.
"I know we all want a clean environment but we have to be realistic about how we achieve that outcome. Regulations have to be realistic and achievable. We have to be able to weigh what it's going to cost American families," she said.
EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said the agency considered economic costs and benefits "heavily" as it reviewed public input and "developed a proposal that provides flexibility for states to reduce carbon pollution over time."
Although some worry that coal power plants will be unable to comply with the EPA's proposed rule and shut down, Mylott noted that nothing in the agency's plan requires a facility of any kind to close.
"We know that coal is and will remain among the leading sources of electricity generation here in Colorado and in the United States," he said.
He said the plan reflects steps states already have been taking on energy issues, and the EPA needs to make sure it places a premium on flexibility in meeting state goals.
"We've heard that message clearly in the feedback we've received, and our proposed plan does that."
Four years at mine
Lewis is a single mother raising five biological and two foster children, three of them with long-term medical issues. Dajia Lewis, 14, had kidney-related surgery when young, and continues to require kidney function tests and deal with urinary tract infections and other complications.
Topping things off, Lewis just days ago underwent a hysterectomy because of a cancer scare. She's not expecting at this point to have to undergo chemotherapy and hopes to make a full recovery.
Lewis is from New York State but has lived in the Steamboat Springs and Craig areas for more than 20 years. Her then-husband had worked at Twentymile but now lives out of state.
Lewis has a high school diploma and an interest in nursing, but was a stay-at-home mom while married. She's worked at the mine for four years, and works as a "belt man," helping take care of conveyor belts and shovel coal to belts.
Harrell said while some other females do underground work at the mine, the industry is male-dominated.
"I think a lot of it is just a choice. It's a difficult, hard job and it's a difficult environment to work in," he said.
Lewis said she gets along well with her male co-workers.
"They're very respectful. They see I work hard and the ones that know the story (of her sick children) … they're pretty supportive. They all treat me well."
Harrell said, "It's the type of environment where you become very close and very dependent on your workers and it's a very team-oriented environment."
Lewis said she's forced to take a lot of unpaid time off, a right provided by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, to deal with her children's myriad health problems.
Globally rare disease
When Willie was first diagnosed with what's called X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis (XIAP) deficiency, as few as 10 people around the world were known to have it.
Dr. Bruce J. Lanser, a pediatric allergy and immunology fellow at National Jewish Health in Denver who has worked with the Lewis family, said he's seen more recent data showing at least 27 cases in just one country, Germany, as awareness about it grows.
The malady occurs only in males and results from a chromosomal mutation that a boy inherits from his mother. Lanser said it causes the body not to produce a protein that blocks the killing of cells in the body.
Resulting problems can include low blood platelets, frequent fever and susceptibility to Epstein-Barr virus, which usually causes mononucleosis in most people. The boys' illness also results in an enlarged spleen when they get sick, which potentially could rupture during physical activities common to children and could result in them bleeding to death if not caught in time.
Other concerns include the potential to develop certain blood cancers.
Lewis said Willie's life expectancy was only 9, but doctors say the monthly infusions have extended his life.
Lanser said while Willie still has long-term consequences to deal with, it appears that as children get older they deal with less in the way of severe illnesses that younger victims of the disease have. Tracer is still coping with such illnesses, and last winter spent time in the hospital on a ventilator during one setback.
Lanser said one reason for the high cost of the boys' monthly infusions is that each one comes from a concentration pooled from anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 donors..
"Without it I think they'd certainly be at risk for even more infections than they currently have," said Lanser, who said patients have died from some of those infections because they can't fight them off.
Dr. Sheila Fountain, a pediatrician based in Steamboat Springs who treats the Lewis children, said the infusions also require a monthly, day-long hospital stay, adding to a cost she said would be "incomprehensible to pay out of pocket every month."
Lewis said her insurer agreed after initial reluctance to cover the treatments despite their experimental nature. Even at that, she's on a payment plan for the $2,000 a month she's responsible for in the case of each infusion.
Parents of patients
Both doctors praised Lewis for her strength and hard work in dealing with such extraordinary circumstances. Lanser said she handles a lot of medical issues at home that other moms would have taken their kids to the hospital for, and manages to single handedly raise seven kids and hold down a strenuous job. Everyone at National Jewish Health "is pretty amazed" by what she does, he said.
"She's dealing with a lot and she's handling it well," he said.
Said Fountain, "Sarah is a dear mom and works hard. I don't know what her situation would be if she lost her job."
She said a lot of the parents of her patients work at coal mines.
"If the coal mines weren't there, they wouldn't have access to health care because they wouldn't have the benefits to access," Fountain said.
Aiding local economies
The EPA's Mylott noted that its plan "focuses on protecting people's health and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change. As we've seen in Colorado, we're no longer just projecting tomorrow's climate impacts, we're adding up the costs of today's damages."
He said the flexible, state-by-state approach the agency is taking "will not only help states cut emissions that contribute to climate change in an efficient way, it also gets us health and economic benefits that will outweigh costs by 10-1."
He also emphasized that the EPA's plan is based on public input, and the agency is continuing to ask for comments through Oct. 16.
Jeremy Nichols, with Wild- Earth Guardians, supports the EPA taking steps to regulate carbon emissions. He said he sympathizes with the concerns of Lewis, Kinkaid and others in Craig, but the answer isn't to abandon regulations.
"It's time to accept the reality and find a way to advance a clean energy economy and not rely on fossil fuels," he said.
He said the EPA is doing its job, but it's up to other federal agencies also to have plans in place to help economies adjust to the changes that need to occur.
Last month, the Department of Commerce announced a $245,000 grant to help the region economically recover after layoffs at the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset due to a fire in that coal mine. Nichols said he was glad to hear of that assistance but feels the Obama administration has fallen short in helping local economies make the shift to clean energy.
"The communities are kind of caught in the middle. It's a very frustrating situation," he said.