Fighting for Justice in the Coalfields

Hollowed Mountains, Now Hollowed Towns: Coal in Eastern Kentucky

Erica Peterson, environment reporter for WFPL News in Louisville, reports on eastern Kentucky coal industry trends in the wake of the “SOAR: Shaping Our Appalachian Region” Summit. Peterson does an excellent job interviewing laid off coal miners who have been forced to adjust budgets, examine new career paths, and even consider moving out of the region that they love in search of jobs:

Miners like Cox and Smith are drawn westward, in hopes they can continue doing the only work they’ve ever been trained and paid to do.

“Where else could I go with a high school education and make $40 an hour?” Wesley Smith asks.

Coal mining is just about the only way to make a decent living in Appalachia without a college education. Garry Cox says when he was laid off with only a few years of experience, he was making nearly $25 an hour plus overtime—a decent wage anywhere, but especially in Eastern Kentucky, where the cost of living is low.

“It was fun to see all these 18, 19 year old boys with wads of cash,” Cox says, remembering the day he got hired in the mine. “‘How you do that man?’ ‘Just climb down in that hole. All the money you can stand.’”

Peterson also notes the structural changes of the coal economy. She points out the rise of Illinois basin coal in east Kentucky, the drop in natural gas prices, and the rising costs of mining central Appalachian coal. She examines personal reactions to this slow and painful transition, and they range from resignation to blaming politicians to searching for solutions.

One such example comes from Todd Howard, who practices sustainable agriculture in Floyd County:

Howard farms about 8 acres, spread out over four different locations, divided among land owned by him, his neighbors and friends. … Now that he’s in agriculture, he’s concerned about the water and the effects nearby coal mining could have on his business. And, of course, there’s his community.

At its recent peak in 2008, there were nearly 1,100 miners in Floyd County. Now there are 500.

“I have a great deal of respect for them, and I want to more than anything be supportive of what they’re doing,” Howard says of his friends and neighbors. “How do you do that, though? How do you get across to people that you have an issue with this industry, that it’s not going to be here 20 years from now?”

Peterson concludes that the recent SOAR initiative, begun by Governor Beshear and Representative Hal Rogers, indicates that leaders may be willing to finally set political differences aside and focus on diversifying the region’s economy.

Now that the summit is over comes the real test. It’s up to political, community and business leaders to prove that while this isn’t the end of the coal industry, this is the beginning of a thoughtful, productive discussion about the region’s future, rather than another empty PR effort.

The entire written piece, along with an audio version, can be found here.

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