By Catherine Venable Moore
September 9, 2021 - From the conflicts of the Mine Wars-era, to the new fight to survive amid shifts in energy needs and deepening calls for environmental reform, West Virginians have long been searching for a way to make a life alongside -- and beyond -- coal.
Older residents can remember when McDowell County, West Virginia, boomed with coal jobs in the 1950s. But today, the region is filled with ghost towns.
“We’ve closed Walmart. We’ve closed Magic Mart. We’ve closed everything. Y’all have no idea what my people go through,” said Ed Evans, a state delegate from McDowell County.
Earlier this year, Evans made an emotional appeal to his colleagues in the House, asking them to invest a chunk of the state’s federal COVID-19 aid into helping coal communities plan for an economic comeback.
“I’ve asked for help many times on this floor. What have I got? Failing to plan is failing to plan,” he said.
His request was denied. But Evans isn’t alone. Across the Appalachian region, people are searching for a future beyond coal.
In our new series, “Coal and the Way Forward,” we’ll be talking to some of them. People like Pam Bush, a West Virginia Studies teacher who believes it’s important to understand the history that brought us to this moment.
“Our culture is what it is because [of] the people that came here to work in the coal mines. We can't forget the past if we hope to move forward,” she recently told education reporter Liz McCormick.
That history includes major advancements in the protection of miners’ health and safety. Like the creation of black lung clinics across the region in the late 1960s, and legislation to provide benefits and health care to those afflicted with the occupational disease.
Yet the fight for miner safety is seemingly never done. And in fact, say doctors, we may even be losing ground.
“Currently the rate of advanced black lung is higher now than it was when they passed the Mine Safety Act in 1969. That's crazy,” says Dr. Carl Werntz, who has treated mine workers with the disease for over a decade.
And while the risks associated with this occupation may be profound, they are also part of what brings miners together, in brotherhood--and sisterhood.
“It’s a relationship and a bond that a lot of people won’t ever get to experience and that’s because my life’s in your hands,” says Anita Cecil McBride, a single mother who followed her father into the traditionally male mining industry because it was the best paying job she could find.
The United Mine Workers of America labor union, which McBride belonged to, has historically been another point of connection for some workers. But with each passing year, it represents fewer and fewer active miners. And as its leaders wrestle with an uncertain future, they so far haven’t embraced workers in the renewable energy sector.
“The thing to remember here is [that] the jobs — as they exist right now — in the renewable sector, pay only a fraction of what a coal miner makes,” UMWA president Cecil Roberts told reporter Dave Mistich.
A hundred years ago, their predecessors took part in our nation’s most violent labor uprising, a watershed moment when coal workers decided their right to work safely and with fair pay were worth fighting, and even dying for.
“Blair Mountain is Labor's Gettysburg,” says one of their descendants, Charles Keeney. “It is a crucial moment in which the miners themselves were fighting for basic American rights.
Today, the fossil fuel industry faces mounting pressure to curb carbon emissions, and miners are fighting a losing battle to save coal-fired power plants from shutting down.
Coal has given, and cost, the state of West Virginia. It brought jobs, but some workers paid with their very breath. It became part of our self-image, but it also inflicted environmental damage along the way. Damage that needs to be cleaned up. And some leaders see potential for economic renewal in the reclamation and repurposing of mine lands.
“I see us sitting here now in a sweet spot,” says Anne Cavalier, the mayor of Smithers, West Virginia. “I also see new jobs and new futures for the members of those families who can make that transition from coal to tourism.
The Mountain State isn’t the only place that’s had to reckon with the difficulty of transitioning away from a coal economy, into something different.
West Germany used to be one of the world’s leading coal and steel producers. When an economic crisis hit in the 1960s, it prompted a strange and unusual alliance.
“The state government, the regional governments, the trade unions, and the employers, the industrialists, sat together and tried to find solutions to the problem,” says Stefan Moitra, a historian at the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum in the Ruhr region of West Germany.
Now, a generation later, West German historian Christian Wicke says, “One might argue if you have a good job that the region is more livable than ever before.”
But who is presenting a clear path forward here in Appalachia? That’s what we’re asking in our new series, “Coal and the Way Forward.”
Tune in to “West Virginia Morning” over the next two weeks to hear all the stories, or find the complete series here at wvpublic.org.