Coal mining is a dangerous business. The miners know it, their families know it, and the mining companies know it. But coal is such a valuable commodity that, even with all that it involves, people assume this risk. The reward is handsome. Miners earn more than enough to feed their families and put roofs over their heads, and coal companies see profits in the billions of dollars. Coal-fired power plants give us enough energy to fuel power grids across the country. There are entire towns whose economy is based on coal mining.
But what happens to these towns when the coal is gone?
In southern West Virginia, coal is king. Coal has been extracted from the mountains of Appalachia for hundreds of years. However coal will not last forever. In Logan County, West Virginia, you can see the effects of the dwindling supply of coal. Logan is the one of the most poverty-stricken counties in one of the most poverty stricken state in the United States. Driving through the streets of Logan, you can see abandoned buildings, homes and businesses that have been burned down for insurance money (arson is one of their top crimes), and blight that resembles a third world country. Occasionally, an entrepreneurial-minded individual purchases a property with the intention of opening up a small business or refurbishing a run-down existing business, but more often than not, the plan falls by the wayside. This is a direct result of coal companies not investing in the communities that give them so much. This is a systemic problem within the coal industry. Once the coal is gone, coal companies leave and they leave without any sort of long-term investment in these mining towns that leaves the community with a sustainable way of life.
In addition to the coal-related health issues such as black lung, COPD, and asthma, southern West Virginia is prone to a myriad of health issues. The runoff from the silt pollutes the water so badly, bleach has to be added. Drinking tap water tastes like swallowing water from a swimming pool. Rampant drug abuse is prevalent in this region, prescription pain medications in particular. Because area doctors are very wary of someone who comes in complaining of a pain that warrants the level of relief they so desperately need. Some of the more jaded doctors will prescribe motrin for injury that deserves Vicodin. Mental health issues are an issue too. Again, the more jaded doctors will tell patients, basically, to “... get over it” when anti-depressants are truly needed for fear of the patient becoming addicted. A local funeral director says that since November 2012, he has held over 40 services.
Coal mining, particularly mountaintop removal of coal, is destroying the natural beauty of the Appalachians. An industry that has the power to survive the loss of coal is tourism. However mountaintop removal mangles the natural form of the mountains. What was once picturesque beauty is now described as very similar to Afghanistan. Mountaintop removal is also threatening historic Blair Mountain. Blair Mountain was the site of the largest armed rebellion since the Civil War. Historians and environmentalists are battling coal companies in U.S. District Courts now in order to place Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places, making the site off limits to coal companies.
The coal companies need to re-invest in these communities. They need to invest in mine safety, education, and health care. Small business start ups need to invest here as well. There is potential to have a life after coal. Mountaintop sites that have been used up have vast potential to host solar arrays and wind farms. Jobs that will be lost due to the ever dwindling coal supply can be gained back through training these very proud people to run renewable energy sources. We see “Big Oil” investment millions of dollars in the renewable energy sector so they have the ability to survive when fossil fuels run out. Jobs can be created through investment. Investors and coal companies alike must take advantage of the opportunity so that these proud people of xouthern West Virginia can survive in the 21st century.