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Clintwood High School, Clintwood, VA | Photo: Nick Mullins

Since the fall of the steel industry in this country, the majority of Appalachia’s metallurgical coal reserves have been going overseas. Some goes to Europe to foundries producing highly engineered, high quality products. Most ends up in China and India where companies can get by with minimal pollution controls and low wages among people with very few rights. Either way, for many people in Appalachia, coal exports mean coal mines will stay open and miners will have jobs.

The mine where I worked near Clintwood, Virginia produced high-grade metallurgical coal. When we were running full out, 300 trucks would haul our efforts to the prep plant at Tom’s Creek where it’d be cleaned and loaded onto Norfolk Southern trains bound for the Dominion Terminal in Newport News, Virginia (majority of which was owned by Alpha Natural Resources). From there, it went to the world market.

In 2007-08, we were told that most of the coal was going to Europe where peak market prices reached $350 per ton. Considering that our mine alone was producing an average of 1.7 million tons of coal annually means Alpha was making a helluva lot of money. And our mine only employed upwards of 300 men.

When the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the company began issuing memos explaining that most of the world’s steel furnaces were idling production. Not long after, a helicopter full of investors from India landed at our mine to receive a tour. We were later informed that thanks to natural disasters in Australia, and Alpha’s top-notch global coal sales team, our mine would not be idled.

At the time I didn’t think too much about it. I was happy that Alpha was able to sell coal and I was able to maintain a high paying job in a deeply impoverished area. Years later, I see things much differently.

Out of curiosity, I went to the US Energy Information Administration and began digging around (pun fully intended) to see if I could figure out just how much money Alpha made off the coal we produced at Deep Mine #26. First I determined that the mine produced 17,595,507 tons of coal from 2002 to 2016. I then took the average annual export price for met coal over the same 14 year period and came up with an average price of $118.47 per ton. When multiplying the two together (17,595,507 tons x $118.47/ton) Paramont’s Deep Mine 26 produced a conservative $2 billion dollars’ worth of coal. I say conservative because the EIA had blacked out the export prices of the Dominion Terminal, so the average prices could have been higher.

If this one mine produced this much wealth in coal over just 14 years, imagine how much all the coal was worth that has left our region over a century’s worthy of mining from hundreds, if not thousands, of mines.

Early on, the coal we were producing helped our nation industrialize and become the global superpower it is today. It built the railroads, the cities, the ships, the military, the auto industry, and electrified the majority of our nation. Thanks to unions we had a few decades in which the middle class flourished and most of us enjoyed some semblance of a work/life balance. But it was hard fought for and short lived. As corporatist politicians and anti-union corporations kept expanding right-to-work laws and trade deals that increased globalization, we all began to suffer in a major way.

Now our coal, and a huge majority of manufacturing jobs, have gone elsewhere where corporations in foreign countries benefit from the coal we’ve sacrificed our health to extract. The cheaper steel being produced in those countries is used to manufacture cheap goods which end up in the US and sold back to us for profit. Oh, and rest assured some of that steel being produced in China is going to build up their military. Think about that one for a minute.

Naturally, all the $2 billion dollars worth of coal produced by Deep Mine 26 did not end up in the pockets of Alpha Natural Resources. There was  overhead, but still, I can’t see it having cost them more than maybe $500 million to $750 million to open and operate that mine. A friend once told me he personally heard the superintendent brag that the mine paid for itself within its first year of operation. So who really know just how much they made, but even if it was $1.25 BILLION, that’s a heck of a lot of money. And that was just what Alpha made from the coal. Other companies made profit from our coal as well: each of the transportation companies who got it from point A here, to point B somewhere else in the world, the steel producers, the product manufacturers, retailers, construction companies, and anyone else who used the steel made from the coal we produced. Who knows how much that coal really ended up being worth for all of the companies and corporations who profited from what it produced. It was a lot more than $1.25 billion I’m sure and we sure as hell didn’t get to see much of it back home.

During Deep Mine 26’s period of operation in our county, the Dickenson County Public School System needed to replace its 50-year-old high schools and some of its 30-year-old elementary schools. When the new centralized Ridgeview High School was constructed in 2014-15, it came at a cost of roughly $110 million dollars, ninety-five percent of which was being funded by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Since that time the county has had to cut budgets and staff to survive. I heard first hand from teachers who were sourcing external funds to get basic class supplies on their own. Another friend told me that at one point, they had to ask students to conserve paper towels and toilet paper.

These issues bring to light many questions. How much has the coal in Dickenson County been worth and why haven’t the companies who own it and produce it paid their fair share of taxes on it? Why are our communities some of the poorest of the nation? Who are the local and state politicians allowing this to continue year after year, decade after decade? How did outside companies come to own all our mineral rights in the first place? Why don’t our local politicians stand up against the unethical means by which they were purchased? Why haven’t there been investigations and lawsuits? Why do we still remain so poor despite the billions and billions of dollars of natural resource wealth that has left our part of the country?

When you really think about it, coal severance taxes were just a drop in the ocean compared to what companies have made from our coal reserves. Did you know that for the longest time in Kuwait, because of their oil, Kuwaiti citizens didn’t have to pay for their water, electricity, telephone, and everyone received interest-free loans, free food, and free healthcare. What have we gotten in Appalachia for our coal?

These are the problems that communities suffer when local, state, and federal politicians, who are campaigned for and lobbied by industry, allow the exploitation of our resources. Year after year we contend with underfunded public schools, a lack of public services, and failing infrastructure—and let’s not forget a profit-driven healthcare system full of corrupt doctors putting everyone and their grandparents on opioids, keeping us drugged up so we don’t realize what’s going on. Hell, we have to fight just to get black lung benefits or workman’s compensation when we’re injured.

We have given so much of ourselves and our Appalachian communities that the social fabric of region has become threadbare. The hopelessness to find meaningful employment has led to people becoming hopelessly dependent on either working unhealthy jobs or hooked on government assistance. And it is not our fault. These injustices were forced on us by the greed of outside investors and the corruption of local elites.

Coal operators, Letcher County, KY, 1914. Kentuckyiana .
Coal operators, Letcher County, KY, 1914. Kentuckyiana | Photo: Pinterest.com

This history and these perspectives are not taught in our public schools or discussed openly if you want to get one of the few living wage jobs in the area. Instead, you have to be pro-coal, support the same people who’ve taken advantage of us for a century, and vote for wealthy businessmen who will keep us in the same situation we’ve always been in. It’s hard to fault people though, that’s just the way it is in Appalachia.

Rest assured though, our region—indeed our entire nation—suffers when our coal ends up in foreign countries to power their industries and build their military. As coal miners, former and current, we all need to take a hard look at what’s going on, ask some tough questions, and really begin to understand the true nature of what’s going on. We need to educate ourselves and think more deeply about the politicians we elect into office and how “just” the justice system really is. Personally, for the sake of our children, I think it’s time for something new.

2 Comments

  1. I’m from Williamson, worked in the mining industry in the 70’s. The one word you used explains much of the problem and what the solution needs to be- mom-economic. Applalachia is a one cash crop economy, and unless diversification occurs, nothing else will matter. You can builld alll the high schools you want , but if htere are no real and diverse job opportunities, graduates will continue to leave. Ileft in 1977, returned in 2001 to lecture at Pikeville College of Osteopathic Medicine and passed through Williamson. The canges were extremely depressing. i stopped in a Big Lots stoe and of about 5o people in the store, 90% were obese, children included. I drove by my old high school (now a middle school) when it was letting out and the obesity I witnessed was just as bad. The incidence of diabetes and hypertension in grade school chidren continues to climb. South Williamson, where I grew up and had been a nice middle class neighborhood, was depressing, with manu of the homes now turned into offices, with billboards mounted on the roofs offering legal assistance for workman’s comp claims. People told me it wasn’t safe to walk around the town after dark because of the drug epidemic and possibility of being mugged.
    You can google War on Poverty Appalachia NY Times and see what’s been accomplished. To quote from one of the articles,
    “McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.
    Much of McDowell County looks like a rural Detroit, with broken windows on shuttered businesses and homes crumbling from neglect. In many places, little seems to have been built or maintained in decades.”
    To change Appallachia and establish a diversified economy requires not only money, but the political will to do so. Looking at what was done in Europe loses some relevance. Trying to make a comparison just because i both cases there are dying industries does not take into account the historical, cultural and geography (the “Appalachian Ghetto” created by years of isolation due to the mountains). Better to look at what China has accomplished in creating industries in some of its outlying areas.
    To just keep pouring money into a “failed state” is just to propagate the status quo.

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    1. There are many hurdles to consider when it comes to bringing a just economic transition to Appalachia. You are absolutely right that addressing he mono-economy is a dire necessity, but to do that we need an educated voter base full of critical thinkers to keep corrupt politicians from maintaining it. I believe the first step towards a just transition would be to begin taxing the absentee landowners their fair share. With those revenues, better education can be given to start a generational change. Better programs can be offered in terms of healing the social issues generated by intense poverty. Those create jobs, as well as could local land remediation, agricultural projects and so on. If companies are increasingly taxed on property, they may be less interested in holding onto the land as well.

      There is no silver bullet. In many cases, there are other problems that run much deeper within the area than the socioeconomic and sociopolitical. We have a long way to go.

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