By December 5, 2015 Read More →

As West Virginia coal industry dries up, state struggles to find opportunities

West Virginia coal employment down to 20,000 from 130,000 in 1940

west virginia coal

The West Virginia coal industry seems to be drying up for good as mines are used up, fierce global competition rages, clean air and water regulations are imposed and increasing costs take a bite out of the bottom line. photo. 

WELCH, W.Va. – The seams of coal in some of Eddie Asbury’s mines in McDowell County are so thin workers can barely squeeze down them. They enter on carts nearly flat on their backs, the roof of the mine coursing by just a few inches in front of their faces. They don’t stand up all day.

To keep his business operating with such a paltry amount of coal, Asbury has to do everything himself. He has no use for the shiny, multimillion-dollar mining machines on display this fall at the biannual coal show nearby. His equipment is secondhand stuff that he repairs and refurbishes. The coal he and his workers scrape out of the mountain is washed and prepared for sale in a plant Asbury and a colleague built themselves.

“It’s how we survive,” says Asbury, 66, a miner since 1971.

Even coal is barely surviving in coal country, and coal is about the only thing that Central Appalachia has.

West Virginia is the only state in the country where more than half of adults are not working, according to the Census Bureau. It is tied with Kentucky for the highest percentage of residents collecting disability payments from Social Security, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the death rate among working-age adults is highest in the nation, 55 per cent higher the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now the one main source for decent-paying work, the brutal life of coal, seems to be drying up for good. The thick, easy, cheap coal is gone, global competition is fierce, and clean air and water regulations are increasing costs and cutting into demand.

Central Appalachia’s struggle is familiar to many rural regions across the U.S., where middle-class jobs are disappearing or gone and young people have no choice other than to leave to find opportunity. But the problems are amplified in coal country, where these difficult economic and social conditions have gripped the region for decades and where there is hardly any flat land to build anything.

Every year since 1979, West Virginia has led the country in the percentage of people who are either not working or looking for work. But businesses are reluctant to come set up shop in Central Appalachia and take advantage of the available labour in part because education levels are so low. Forty-two per cent of prime-age West Virginians have no more than a high-school degree, nearly double the national average.

“We have a mismatch between the job skills that employers want and the job skills West Virginians have,” says John Deskins, director of the Bureau for Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. “It’s a little bit grim. You can cut the data in multiple ways, and West Virginia still lags the nation.”

But this crisis, and the realization that there won’t be another coal boom in these parts, is leading to a growing understanding that new approaches are needed to help Central Appalachia emerge from decades of deep poverty, under-education and poor health.

Big federal and state programs and initiatives have failed to help the region diversify its economy much beyond digging or blasting coal out of mountains. If anything is going to help the people of Appalachia, poverty experts and residents of West Virginia now say, it’s themselves: local entrepreneurs who know their communities and customers well, and are committed to them.

“We need to have some urgency and look at other possibilities because coal may not be here,” says Dr. Donovan “Dino” Beckett, CEO of the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, who also is supporting a range of programs to help boost health and entrepreneurship. “But that’s a controversial subject here because coal is a way of life.”

Success, if it can come to coal country, will be the result of thousands of big risks taken by small-scale business people. It will be halting and arduous and it will come with failure. Many will have no choice but to leave, as tens of thousands already have in recent decades.

Central Appalachia is not out of ideas, though, and it has not given up. Grass-roots approaches like Dino Beckett’s programs to improve health in Mingo County, an apprentice program in Wayne County designed to give high school kids a better chance at a good job, and even Eddie Asbury’s small-but-determined coal operation in McDowell County show how Central Appalachia may slowly begin to remake itself.

West Virginia coal employment peaked at 130,000 miners in 1940 and is now under 20,000.

The same trend played across the nation. There are fewer than 80,000 coal miners in the U.S. That’s one-tenth the number of coal workers in the 1920s, and those fewer workers now produce nearly twice as much coal.

Mechanization began slashing the number of workers needed to mine coal in the 1960s, and then a collapse in the U.S. steel industry in 1980s further reduced miners’ ranks.

Now employment is falling further because the world is trying to turn away from coal in hopes of protecting the environment and human health. Coal is by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants among fuels used to make electricity.

Coal will not go completely away anytime soon, it’s the cheapest way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people who lack access to it, and even developed nations will still need to burn it as they transition to cleaner fuels. The carbon in coal will still be needed to mix with iron to make steel. But there is so much more coal than the world needs that only the cheapest global producers will survive.

In the U.S., where natural gas has become a cheaper alternative to coal to generate electricity, miners are facing an especially difficult market: Four major U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in the last 18 months.

Mining a thin seam of coal takes nearly as much labour, time and cost as mining a thick seam, but it yields a lot less coal. That makes the thin seams left in Central Appalachia too expensive to compete with cheaper coal being mined in places like Illinois, Wyoming, Australia and Indonesia. The industry will persist here, driven by small, determined operators like Asbury, but as a niche no longer able to support a region’s economy.

“There’s a reluctant realization that this is different,” says Keith Burdette, West Virginia’s commerce secretary and head of the state’s economic development office, of the latest coal bust.

To many, it is a massive failure of government at federal and local levels that a trend of declining employment, under-education and poor health has been allowed to continue for half a century without a comprehensive overhaul of development policy. For example, many states that rely on natural resource production have permanent funds created with taxes or royalties from resource production that can be tapped during downturns. West Virginia set one up only last year, and it is empty.

“Our policy makers haven’t grappled with the realities, and it’s to the detriment of coal communities,” says Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “When the new economy started taking off, it left West Virginia behind.”

That may be starting to change.

After Josh Napier graduated from high school in Wayne County, West Virginia, in 2011 all he could find were jobs at fast food restaurants. The next year, with his first child on the way, he heard about Brandon Dennison.

“Every construction job I applied for required two years of experience,” Napier says. “Brandon was the first person to give me the chance to actually work on a job.”

Dennison wants to reduce poverty in his home state, so he devised a business plan in graduate school that uses some of the state’s disadvantages, like its abandoned buildings, to create jobs.

west virginia coal

Coalmine Development Corp. hires local high school graduates and teaches them construction and life skills.  Photo courtesy Coalmine Development Corporation.

His creation, Coalfield Development Corp., hires graduates of high school vocational programs to restore, repurpose or tear down old buildings, use old building materials to make furniture, or build new homes on reclaimed coalfield land.

Employees also are also required to take six hours of community college courses a week and three hours of life skills classes that help them with things like money management and healthy eating.

“If you don’t have a job lined up, that 18-to-19 age becomes a cliff, and we see a lot of bad decisions,” Dennison says.

Napier got hands-on construction experience working on several types of projects, including installation of solar panels, a skill he’d like to pursue in the future. He also took classes in parenting and anger management that he says have made him a better father.

The program is getting such a good response that Dennison plans to expand early next year to start similar businesses focused on agriculture, tourism and retail.

“We’re trying to change mindsets in coal country, from ‘the world is out to get me’ to ‘the world is full of opportunity,”’ Dennison says. “A huge focus of the training we do is around entrepreneurship and how to start a business.”

The Canadian Press


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