Coal Country 101
January 2, 2018 6:18 AM   Subscribe

The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal.

Learn about the area's history

Why has the coal industry been permitted so much free rein over central Appalachia, despite the obvious toll it has taken on Appalachian residents? For one thing, the people responsible for devastating the area don’t actually have to live there and experience the consequences of their actions. By the time America won its independence, central Appalachia had already been carved into estates owned from afar.

Politics

Had West Virginia moved to change its tax system, it might have used coal companies’ taxes to fund public investments that could have given residents more economic freedom and better quality of life. But supporters of the extractive regime were vastly more powerful. Political bosses often doubled as coal operators, and “company men” were frequently elected to state senate, typically serving as head of the mines and mining committee.

Coal camps

There were other dangerous dependencies that were simply facts of life in Wharton. White recalls the day the four company men marched into the house next door, where Fred and Bobbie York lived, emptied all their things into the small soot-specked yard, and left. It was threatening to rain, and there sat Bobbie’s piano. White, her grandmother, and Bobbie hauled it up onto the Cooks’ porch, just missing the downpour. The Yorks gathered their damp belongings into a borrowed car and left. A week later, a new miner and his family moved in. White learned later that Fred’s leg had been badly broken in the mines and Eastern was fed up waiting for it to heal. After a while, someone came for Bobbie’s piano. Where the person took it, or what became of the Yorks, White never heard.

“You didn’t want to talk bad against them—our whole existence depended on the coal companies.” The company could do that, of course, because Eastern owned the Yorks’ house. They owned everyone’s house, in fact—and everything else in Wharton from the church to the clinic, except the post office. There was no other employer. Those who complained found themselves not only jobless but blackballed, leaving them nowhere to work or live.


The switch to strip mining and mountaintop removal

The scale of environmental carnage is possible, at least in part, because of the land-grab legacy: corporate control of enormous land parcels has meant residents lack the legal clout to object. It’s also been possible thanks to the signing away of mineral rights that happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s—that saw Nick Mullins’ ancestor part with a hoard of coal wealth for 12 rifles and 13 hogs. This wasn’t merely a matter of swindling farmers out of subsurface riches. Since mineral rights legally trumped surface rights, corporate ownership let coal companies clear cut forests for mine supports, build roads and railroad spurs, pollute and divert streams—all without having to pay taxes on the land they defaced, as Erikson explains. Strip-mining, however, pushed this bait-and-switch to a whole new level. Mineral rights let coal companies tear off mountaintops—ruining the land permanently—to get at the coal beneath it.

The environmental devastation

Blowing off a mountaintop releases naturally occurring poisons like arsenic, selenium, lead, and manganese. These poisons then seep into streams and groundwater. Meanwhile, the blasting fogs the air with a toxic cocktail of dust that settles on roofs and windows in the valleys below, and cakes the lining of lungs. The displaced soil and vegetation from mountaintop removal is plowed into valleys, creating enormous detritus piles and choking off waterways.

Health

For a decade now, peer-reviewed research produced by Hendryx, now a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, exposed a consistent link between mountaintop removal and a broad range of health problems and rising mortality rates. According to his research, since 1990—when amendments to the US Clean Air Act inadvertently stoked the growth of mountaintop removal (registration required)—parts of central Appalachia with mountaintop removal have had about 1,200 extra deaths per year, adjusting for age, smoking habits, and other factors.

The opioid crisis

It’s probably no coincidence that coal-mining towns emerged in the 1990s as the epicenter of the opioid crisis, says Shannon Monnat, sociology professor at Penn State University. Of course, injuries abound and surgery is common, leading to prescriptions for heavy-duty painkillers. To keep injured miners working—and from claiming disability insurance—some companies had doctors prescribing pain drugs on the job.

And overall suckiness

Central Appalachia’s brutally low living standards certainly bring with them plenty of stress. And the economic realities of the region mean that a sense of community, which might alleviate the effects of stress, is hard to come by.
posted by Miss Cellania (19 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
In some ways opioid addiction is a good analogy for these places where they want coal mining to persist forever. There are so many negative side effects, but they believe that they need it to live and they're doomed if they don't get it. It's hard and tough and not an easy life, and they'll tell you that, sometimes with pride. They can't imagine any other way though. They fool themselves into thinking opioids or coal mines are the only friends that can help them, rather than face the truth that they are their worst enemy, and they've been used in the worst way.

Hendryx, now a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, exposed a consistent link between mountaintop removal and a broad range of health problems and rising mortality rates.

A suitable name for an expert in mountain top removal.
posted by adept256 at 8:09 AM on January 2 [11 favorites]


thanks for this, can more journalists cover this? can they do the same story in Texas? the offshore industry is paying people what they paid people in the 1970's, and the blame for low wages is "regulations." my ass

the difference, of course between appalachia and oil country is that oil country has always been plantations, once native land claims were invalidated.
posted by eustatic at 8:45 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Appalachia is pretty much just an internal colony of the US. The same corporate lawlessness, the same bought government, the same brutalized people.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:49 AM on January 2 [22 favorites]


Great first post, Miss C!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:54 AM on January 2 [13 favorites]


See The Navajo, and Peabody Coal.
posted by Oyéah at 10:00 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


I presume that's the same Peabody of "Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away.."

I think about this sort of thing a lot when I ponder the future of my own state (Alaska) as our state's economic and political leadership seem unable (or perhaps just unwilling) to envision any basis for our economy beyond resource extraction.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:07 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]


As someone not from the USA, I genuinely cannot understand how there can be such poverty there. How can any human being think it's ok to use people in such a way? Not having basic security for generations - it breaks my heart.
posted by A hidden well at 10:23 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


Wow, I understood the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, but assumed that the coal companies also owned the surface land they were destroying.

Even in Texas, mineral rights holders' surface access rights are limited to some degree. For one, they have to purchase any surface land they need to permanently occupy, though they can still run roads pretty much wherever they like while they drill (there are some limits to what is considered reasonably necessary, but less than you might think) thanks to the implied easement they have. More importantly, they have a legal duty to restore the property to its former state when they are done. Given that is not possible after mountaintop removal, it would be fairly easy under current law in Texas (or Oklahoma, or Arkansas, which historically produced quite a bit of coal and are all currently oil/gas producers) to stop someone doing that dead in their tracks if they didn't own the surface rights as well.
posted by wierdo at 10:30 AM on January 2 [3 favorites]


Part of the problem (as somebody who grew up in coal country) is that there's nothing else to actually do. Due to history, the only "good" jobs are either directly for the coal companies, or in something related to supporting them. Most people's goal is to leave. As the industry winds down, many of the small towns are emptying out. They did build a bunch of wind turbines, which is ironic, but that's not exactly "industry".
posted by Mr. Big Business at 10:37 AM on January 2 [3 favorites]


Between consolidation pulling money that used to stay in town when then bank, the car dealer, the grocery store, and the hardware store were all locally owned small towns were fucked long before the coal jobs dried up. Granted, many of them were company towns anyway, but many weren't.

In my experience, small cities of at least a couple thousand people can keep themselves going if the chains stay at least 30-45 minutes away. Enough business goes on to keep a few professionals like lawyers and accountants employed, there are management positions that can support a family, and a bunch of relatively menial jobs for the kids who don't leave plus small restaurants and drug stores and auto parts stores and such.

It doesn't take that much when most of the money is staying in the community. Once half of it is going elsewhere, though, the whole thing falls apart.
posted by wierdo at 10:58 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


As someone not from the USA, I genuinely cannot understand how there can be such poverty there. How can any human being think it's ok to use people in such a way? Not having basic security for generations - it breaks my heart.

It's pretty simple. At most times and in many places in the United States, the powers that be who control governance have a very simple motto, "Fuck you, got mine."

Part of the problem (as somebody who grew up in coal country) is that there's nothing else to actually do. Due to history, the only "good" jobs are either directly for the coal companies, or in something related to supporting them. Most people's goal is to leave. As the industry winds down, many of the small towns are emptying out. They did build a bunch of wind turbines, which is ironic, but that's not exactly "industry".

This. Where my family is from in Virginia's coal mining region, an often quoted comment for young men was you either worked in the coal mines or you worked for the power company (Appalachian Energy Power - AEP - now American Electric Power). One grandfather worked for the power company and the other in the coal mines. None of their children remained after high school, and as my parents figure it, at least half if not most of their high school class left to find jobs and a future elsewhere.

Coal was not the first major resource plundered from Appalachia. That was timber, and after the massive forests of the mountains were cleared out, nothing was left to hold back the floods which have helped cause misery and chaos ever since.
posted by Atreides at 11:50 AM on January 2 [10 favorites]


People are still getting swindled out of their mineral rights. And if you're behind on your property taxes you're going to lose them anyway.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:56 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Coal country is so hilly that very little wealth production from ag is possible.

ALL economies are local, money in from exports must equal money out from imports.

Losing the money in from coal exports is a tough hit to take.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 12:32 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


What a bleak and illuminating story. Very well researched and written, a tribute to the long form journalism we're supposedly no longer interested in.

Kudos to Gwynn Guildord for reporting it and to her or the editor (and to OP) for putting the explanation to this tragedy right there in the headline.
posted by ecourbanist at 12:44 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


I grew up in West Virginia. Much of my family is still there. This articulates so clearly what I've been trying to tell them for so long, and why I left, and why I tear my hair when they proudly assert that, "Miners are keeping the lights on!" They genuinely believe that they're supporting the nation. Meanwhile, China's new determination to enforce their environmental policy explains further why the coal companies were so so desperate to extract maximum remaining coal now.

Appalachia used to be hauntingly beautiful. Tourism could have been the saving industry, if we could get some travel writers to think of it as the Tuscany of the US: historical food ways, local artisans... but it's hard to attract visitors when your water is poison.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 5:00 PM on January 2 [12 favorites]


Appalachia used to be hauntingly beautiful. Tourism could have been the saving industry, if we could get some travel writers to think of it as the Tuscany of the US: historical food ways, local artisans... but it's hard to attract visitors when your water is poison.

One hopes that a wave of enterprising outfitters can/will do what they can to start bolstering the outdoors recreation trades in Appalachia -- this is a hugely growing sector and we've seen all sorts of money being made in the western states when places got serious about appealing to bikers, hikers, campers, climbers and kayakers -- but imagine what an influx of federal resources could do with cleaning up the land and establishing more historic monuments, national forests and national parks.
posted by sobell at 5:10 PM on January 2 [5 favorites]


The terrible thing is that a lot of this would work itself out of we'd stop punching ourselves in the face. Even the limited wealth transfer mechanisms like Social Security OASDI and SSDI and Medicare and the various USDA rural programs are enough to make these places viable again given the breathing room. Directed efforts could of course reduce the time scale from a generation to a decade or so, but it's not even necessary in the sense that West Virginia isn't (or need not be) totally fucked relative to other rural states.

The more we prop up dying industries the worse it gets. Unfortunately, decades of brain washing have made corporate welfare acceptable while the people's welfare is ignored. Give the subsidies going to doomed industry to the employees instead and the problems will resolve themselves for the most part.
posted by wierdo at 5:48 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


imagine what an influx of federal resources could do with cleaning up the land and establishing more historic monuments, national forests and national parks.

How about a Blair Mountain National Monument?
posted by ActingTheGoat at 6:06 PM on January 2 [6 favorites]


In addition to all of these horrors being tolerated, even when the effects of slaving away in the mines finally affected the lungs of such miners, doctors from nearby hospitals routinely denied workers comp. insurance coverage to men with black-lung[one of the most iconic health effects of coal mining].
posted by RuvaBlue at 7:56 PM on January 2 [5 favorites]


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