This is part two of a report on the challenges faced by coal communities in southern West Virginia. Part one is available here.
MADISON,W.Va. – McDowell County,nestled in the southernmost part of West Virginia amid the Cumberland Mountains in the Appalachian range,has felt the sting of coal’s departure. 50 percent of the county’s population. Those who stayed behind have been faced with great social and economic difficulties ever since,including the highest drug overdose and poverty rates in the state,with 49.3 percent of children living below the poverty line.
The question on the minds of many residents in southern West Virginia is which county will be the next McDowell,and if it’s theirs,what can be done.
Although McDowell County’s decline was unrelated to environmental regulations,Phil Smith,director of the United Mine Workers of America’s communication department in D.C.,points to it as an example of what happens when the coal industry leaves a community without a plan for those left behind.
“The EPA is about regulating what comes out of smokestacks – it’s not about taking care of people,” he said.
In 2011,a group of organizations – including the U.S. Department of Education,major coal companies,food banks and churches – joined to create Reconnecting McDowell. Its goals are to combat poorly performing schools,poverty,substance abuse,health problems and housing shortages.
The group’s programs are heavily focused on addressing educational challenges,including teacher shortages related to the county’s isolation and poor housing stock. However,the strain on educators and lack of available jobs make it a difficult task.
Coming up with a plan
In southern West Virginia,uncertainty about the region’s economic future and stability of miners’ livelihoods has grown.
Jeff Foster,Boone County Truck Driving School’s lead instructor,believes that long-haul trucking companies – which employ more than 1.7 million people across the U.S. and are set to add nearly 190,000 jobs by 2022 – could help restore the local economy.
“It may not be the ideal job,but you can get a good-paying job that will take care of your family,” he said. “With a CDL license,if you’re not working it’s by choice not by necessity.”
Half of the 150 students taking the class through the National Emergency Grant have found jobs based on their CDL training,according to WorkForce West Virginia.
Foster,who grew up just outside of Boone County and has family who worked in the mines,chose to go into trucking as a way to avoid the coal industry’s instability – at the time caused by strikes. However,driving around the country,sometimes for weeks at a time,presents its own challenges.
“My kids pretty much grew up without me,” he said. “Weekends,holidays,birthdays,most of the time I was on the road.”
“A lot of the younger coal miners,they’ve got this money,and then they’ll spend it as fast as they were making it … and have debt up to their ears” Foster said,describing the tough circumstances coal workers can find themselves in even before being laid off,pushing them toward long-haul trucking. “All of a sudden their money just disappears. They have no other choice.”
Ted Boettner,executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy,sees challenges similar to those faced by coal counties for communities with newly flourishing natural gas development in the northern part of the state.
He described the coal industry’s struggle as a cautionary tale to those who have greeted natural gas development with open arms,saying that extraction companies generally make few long-term investments in the cities and towns where they operate.
“Local communities really suffer,” Boettner said,describing natural gas extraction,“because the economic activity that is taking place is very intermediate.”
With temporary construction workers building gas drilling pads,and coal miners waiting for the next round of layoffs,neither industry can easily promise to provide consistent employment.
In 2011,natural gas surpassed coal as the leading source of U.S. energy production,driven by the technical revolution of hydraulic fracturing,which has greatly decreased costs and boosted West Virginia’s natural gas production by 314.3 trillion cubic feet per year from 2006 to 2012,a 40 percent increase. The state also has the highest number of producing gas and oil wells per square mile and per person in the United States.
For people to be better off after the initial extraction boom ends,foresight and planning from the state and federal governments are required,Boettner said.
He cited as a positive step forward the Future Fund proposed by West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler,D-Wheeling. The bill would set aside additional revenue from natural gas and oil severance taxes for economic development and infrastructure projects,raising teachers’ salaries and helping to support struggling former coal boom towns.
“We’ve been a resource-rich state,particularly in coal,for the last 100 years,but yet despite that,West Virginia at the end of the day is one of the poorest states in the union,” Kessler said in a testimonial video on the Friends of the Future Fund’s website.
Kessler estimated that the state would have had roughly $8 billion in reserves if a similar tax had been passed on coal during the 1970s.
Although not all of the environmental effects of extracting gas and oil are fully understood,the EPA is working on a study to address the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and revising air quality standards that would reduce negative health impacts.
The environmental activist
Being piloted through the air high above mountaintop removal sites,Vivian Stockman – a communication specialist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition conservation group – takes photos and provides aerial tours of destructive mining practices to drive home her organization’s argument to end them.
“The first time I ever saw mountaintop removal coal mining was devastating. It’s like looking upon a wasteland,and it doesn’t stop,” Stockman said. “It’s a giant experiment,and we’re taking this incredibly biodiverse,culturally rich area and turning it into the coal industry’s dump.”
Stockman,who lives in Roane County,W.Va.,where coal is not mined,began volunteering with OVEC in 1995 to fight a proposed pulp mill planned about 40 miles from her home that she feared would “spew dioxin and eat something like 10,000 trees a day.”
“We get accused of being out-of-state extremists while we’re merely in-state extremists,” she said.
The organization is waging a fierce campaign against coal companies to end surface mining which is responsible for about half of production in the region,citing health,environmental and economic concerns.
“It’s always been a boom and bust cycle,and our legislators are failing us because they’re not making any plans for the post-coal economy,” Stockman said.
“They came in and made these promises about the billion dollar coal fields and prosperity for everybody. The only prosperity is for the coal barons,” she said.
“They’re giving us little presents,and we’re supposed to bow down and say thank you,” she said.
“There’s huge pride in being a coal miner but there’s also many,many,many coal miners that don’t want their sons or daughters to be coal miners,” she said. “They know it’s really going bust now.”
Reach reporter Griffin Moores at Griffin.Moores@shns.com or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.