There is an unspoken promise that has been made by politicians and coal companies in Appalachia. It states that if people fight against the “War on Coal” companies can begin to open up mines again, thereby sending miners back to work making good money. There is the promise that Appalachia can be made great again, and that life will somehow improve beyond what it ever has been. But it is a promise that can never be fulfilled—it is a promise that has never been fulfilled.
I have stated and restated this. The Appalachian people, as a whole, have never “benefited” from the coal industry. It is true that a few companies were more benevolent in their company towns than other. Both Wheelwright and Lynch, Kentucky were wonderful places to live and work from what I’ve been told. Central Appalachia, even at the height of coal industry employment, still had its fair share of problems. Educational attainment for Appalachian children has always been below national average. Poverty rates have always exceeded national average. Even when everyone was working in the coal mines making a decent wage, it was taking a toll on the bodies of coal miners.
During the last boom while Appalachia was producing the most coal in its history, many of the coal producing counties ranked within the top 10% of economically distressed counties in the nation with many more ranking in the top 25%.
Why are we to believe that if we stop the “War on Coal” that things will improve in Appalachia? Will the political corruption that has kept coal companies from paying property taxes go away? Will all the coal severance taxes be used to alleviate economic suffering and rebuild infrastructure when it never has before? Will black lung go away? Will pain medication abuse disappear? Will everyone be able to go to work in the mines?
I’ve recently been reading the book Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields by Mike Yarrow and Ruth Yarrow (Bottom Dog Press 2015). The voices are of coal miners and the wives of miners during the 1970s and 80s and I admit it informed my previous post “Repetition.” Reading their accounts solidifies my beliefs. Thirty and forty years later, nothing has changed and it’s not going to. Not until people realize they have been lied to and are willing to work towards a different future.
Appalachia has been a land of broken promises. It’s time we started making our own promises to our children.