Uncertain future for US towns built on coal

Appalachian coal producers worry about new environmental laws as poverty and pollution rise in some mining regions.

A mural of Welch, West Virginia
A mural of Welch in its heyday stands in contrast to the town's bleak situation today [Roopa Gogineni/Al Jazeera]

Welch, West Virginia Calling for the United States to lead the “path towards sustainable energy”, President Obama came out strong on climate change during his second inaugural address on January 21. The administration will likely redouble its efforts to limit emissions from coal-burning power plants, regulations that could force many to close.

One week earlier in West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to protect a different kind of climate in his inaugural speech – the state’s job climate.

“I will continue to protect and increase the production of coal,” Tomblin declared, explaining later in the speech that he intended to “[fight] the federal government to get off our backs and out of our way”.

While Tomblin and the powerful coal lobby battle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, the other front line is the Appalachian coalfields themselves.

Two imposing murals preside over Welch, a town in McDowell County, West Virginia. One depicts the town in the early 20th century, a coal-rich boomtown once called the New York City of West Virginia. Ford Model Ts line the streets.

About 100,000 people lived in McDowell County at its peak. “And they would all come to Welch on Saturday,” remembered Reba Honaker, the town’s mayor. “You couldn’t find a parking space.”

Today, the situation looks different and many believe lay-offs and the rise of drug abuse have pushed the town and surrounding region into decline. A battle between environmentalists and the mining industry over the future of extraction has been raging as the town looks to rebound. 

Jean Battlo, the daughter of a miner, makes sculptures from coal in her studio in West Virginia [Roopa Gogineni/Al Jazeera]

‘King Coal’s’ dethroning

Towns such as Welsh prospered in the early 1900s by fuelling the nation’s wars and industrialisation with coal. But most coal jobs in McDowell were lost mid-century; they were victims of the mechanisation of mining and the demise of the steel industry, which coal had powered.

In West Virginia, the second-biggest coal-producing state in the nation, 150 years of mining has exhausted most of the easy-to-access coal.

Much of the state’s remaining coal can only be recovered through surface mining, by blasting away layers of earth to expose underlying coal beds. Mountaintop removal, the most notorious form of surface mining, faces mounting regulation and an organised opposition that the West Virginia Coal Association has called “radical anticoal extremists”.

Opponents of mountaintop removal are quick to attribute the loss of jobs in coal country to the expansion of surface mining. Fewer men operate the heavy machinery required to move mountains than are needed to go underground.

Today, McDowell County is practically mined out. Still, its people – many of whom still live in old coal company homes – are reluctant to turn their backs on the industry.

“Naturally I support coal,” said Jean Battlo, a writer and artisan from the town of Kimball in McDowell County. “My whole life has been built on it.”

“When I used to criticise the companies,” Battlo added, “my dad would say, ‘You know how you got that smart? The coal mines sent you to college.'”

Even today, coal is central to Battlo’s livelihood: she makes and sells coal sculptures of miners.

Fierce debate

 Mountaintop removal has been found to hurt water quality in an area where many rely on wells [Roopa Gogineni/Al Jazeera]

The debate over the future of coal in West Virginia has grown more fierce over the years. Coal lobbyists claim the EPA and alarmist activists are waging a “war on coal”.

“What we’ve seen is not so much a shift but an assault,” said Jake Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

In his first term in office, Obama’s EPA has enforced stricter carbon capture limits on coal-fired plants, pushing many power companies towards cleaner-burning natural gas. In 2012, coal prices and production fell across the country, most heavily in the central Appalachian region.

Within West Virginia, both Democratic and Republican politicians stand by coal. “You have to pledge allegiance to coal or get out of the state,” explained Vivian Stockman, a co-ordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Stockman noted that state politicians only take a stand against coal when re-election is out of the question.

After spending 56 years in Congress championing coal, the late Senator Robert C Byrd changed his tune at the age of 92. “I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators,” said the late senator in a 2009 speech. “The notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible.”

In June 2012, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller struck another unexpected blow to coal in an address to the Senate. “Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science,” Rockefeller urged. Last week, Senator Rockefeller announced he would not run for reelection in 2014.

Both Byrd and Rockefeller emphasised the health impact in their last-minute condemnation of coal.

But Bostic denied the connection. “Coal mining always happens in the most rural parts of the state, isolated from urban centres and healthcare,” he said. “Poor public health and coal mining are concurrent, but they don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another.”

Illness in Appalachia is often seen as self-inflicted: the stereotype is that people eat, drink or smoke themselves to death. But scientific studies controlling for these behavioural factors have linked coal mining to higher rates of respiratory diseases, birth defects, low birth weight, lung cancer, and other cancers.

The clutch of coal

“A lot of my family still doesn’t talk to me.”

– Junior Walk

Although the health and environmental consequences are well-documented, many in the coalfields believe that condemning or even questioning the industry dishonours a proud legacy.

“I’ve compared them [coal miners] to soldiers,” said Battlo. “Miners went in there each day knowing they could die.”

Many miners did die. Though the number of mine accidents has fallen drastically, occupational hazards remain.

Junior Walk, a 22-year-old from Boone County, has seen them. In high school, Junior’s father got him a job with his employer Massey Energy (which has since been bought by Alpha Natural Resources) in a coal preparation plant. Walk’s work had him waist-deep in coal waste material, spraying down the walls of the plant with a high-pressure hose.

“All you could see were the lights,” Walk said, referring to the glow of the plant’s football-stadium orbs that cut through the black air.

He quit. Not only did Walk quit, he joined Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental organisation fighting surface mining practices. Walk’s parents kicked him out of the house, a signal to their community that his act of treachery warranted disowning him. To suggest otherwise would endanger his father’s well-paying job.

For Junior Walk, like so many others in the region, the politics of coal are deeply personal. “A lot of my family still doesn’t talk to me,” Walk says.

He now speaks about the ills of the industry in local schools. “Ten percent of people here are with us, 10 percent are really against us, and the rest are apathetic. They think ‘oh, that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will continue to be’.”

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Source: Al Jazeera