Working as a miner has long been one of the most perilous occupations on the planet. As the ancient Romans famously conquered lands near and far, they sentenced the slaves they took prisoner to a life of back-breaking labor in their mines. The hardships of such labor were famously portrayed in the Hollywood production of Spartacus, the story of a slave who worked in the mines, refused to submit to the torture of his captors and eventually led a rebellion against Roman tyranny.
Fast forward to mid-18th century Britain–the mining of coal produced the energy needed to power factories and run transport networks, bringing about what would later be known as the Industrial Revolution. As knowledge of new industrial technologies spread across Western Europe and then on to the Americas, countries rich in this relatively inexpensive resource developed into industrial powerhouses.
The advent of industrialization sparked an exodus of rural folks from the countryside to rapidly growing cities where they found employment in factories, and for the first time had wages which enabled them to purchase goods. Using abundant coal reserves as fuel allowed factory owners to produce more goods than were needed, thus introducing the concept of buying things as a sign of status. Later industrialists, such as Henry Ford, developed methods of mass production for goods which accelerated these emerging trends. Factory jobs, in turn, provided the steady incomes that built a middle class which could afford to consume more, and therefore, set the stage for contemporary economic systems based principally on the mass consumption of goods and services.
The discovery and use of coal as a tool for rapid economic development not only changed the way people went about their daily lives, it also became a tool for political propaganda. According to Barbara Freese, author of Coal, A Human History:
In the 1800s, a lot of theologians who wrote about coal saw coal deposits as signs of God’s favor. And that’s why God gave America so much coal and gave England so much coal because he essentially wanted English-speaking countries to have a controlling influence over world affairs. So it was seen really as further evidence of our manifest destiny–Barbara Freese
The price of prosperity
Coal’s power and the prosperity it brought to the barons of industry came at a price—dirty air so thick that it often blocked out the sun, a smell of sulfur that sickened city dwellers and days so dark that street lights had to be turned on.
Due to environmental regulations, the skies may be clearer today in Western Europe and the United States, but more than two centuries of pumping the byproduct of burning coal–carbon dioxide (CO2)–into the Earth’s atmosphere is causing our planet to warm to dangerous levels.
Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived ‘forcing’ of climate change–NASA
Over the past three decades, we’ve witnessed an even more rapid coal-powered economic miracle in China. As anyone who’s traveled or lived in China can attest, this dirty-burning fuel has also turned the air in Chinese cities into some of the most polluted on the planet.
Government Promises and Lax Regulation
Donald Trump’s promises to bring back coal as a chief form of energy for generating electricity in the USA were some of the cruelest and emptiest promises he made during the 2016 Presidential campaign. In his efforts to undo Obama era regulations that sought to provide jobs in cleaner and safer renewable energies such as wind and solar power, he has not only lied to the workers in the mining industry but placed the USA in a position to increase its carbon emissions at a time when the vast majority of the world’s climatologists are warning that the damage caused to Earth’s atmosphere may be at the point of no return. Moreover, his rhetoric continues decades of lax government oversight of an industry that has caused untold physical suffering to its workers, all in the name of short-term profit.
Just as top coal mining states such as West Virginia played a role in electing George W. Bush in 2000, these states played a significant role in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Both of these candidates made repeated campaign promises to reverse the decline of the industry. But the drumbeat of job creation and the promises these candidates made can’t reverse the march of change, especially when there are technological alternatives that can prevent the immediate costs in terms of human health and long-term damage to the environment via the industry’s large contribution to atmospheric CO2 and therefore climate change. As is so often the case, self-serving politicians speak for CEOs and company share-holders while pretending to care about the plight of workers and ignoring the environmental consequences.
During the 1980s and ’90s, Interstate 77, which runs due south from West Virginia to Charlotte, N.C.–a growing city that offered job opportunities in a variety of low-skill industries–was dubbed the ‘hillbilly highway’ by the media due to the decades-long out-migration of West Virginians along this main route. While I personally disapprove of the use of the derogatory term ‘hillbilly’ being used when referring to citizens of West Virginia, this phenomenon further illustrates the sad state of West Virginia’s economy and the unfulfilled promises made by both the federal and state governments.
Environmental damage, illness and poverty
At the same time politicians were pandering to the coal-mining barons and American industries were reaping huge profits from cheap electric power, coal miners were suffering long-term chronic illness and disability from black lung disease or dying in mining disasters. The industry’s workers in traditional coal mining states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, where communities have faced economic stagnation and environmental degradation for decades, have paid an especially high price while other areas of the country benefited from their pain and suffering.
According to Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future:
We’ve been mining coal in America for more than 150 years now — all the easy-to-get stuff is gone. Much of the coal that’s left is of poorer quality or it’s in thinner, more deeply buried seams. Getting it out is not only more environmentally destructive, but more dangerous, too.
The difficulty of reaching these deeply buried seams of coal has led to changes in the way coal mining is done in Appalachia. One method is to have miners cut through layers of silica–a hard mineral whose toxic dust penetrates lung tissue when breathed–in order to expose the hard to reach veins of coal. Another method is surface mining–commonly known as ‘mountain top removal’–which causes massive environmental damage due to erosion and the toxic chemicals used in the process. This has led to tainted wells and other water resources over large swaths of land in rural areas of Appalachia’s coal country. The industry’s contamination of water supplies has further reduced the region’s general quality of life and sickened rural residents who have never set foot inside a coal mine.
While developing black lung disease has always been one of mining’s most notorious occupational hazards, the dust produced by cutting through veins of silica in order to reach deeper layers of coal has been found to be much more damaging to lung tissue than breathing coal dust alone. Miners, whose jobs depend on reaching these hidden coal deposits, are becoming sick with an illness known as complicated black lung or progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). This relatively new, more serious form of deadly lung disease is appearing in miners who are only in their 30s, much earlier in their careers than common back lung disease did in the past. Scott Laney, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health spells out the severity and scope of PMF:
It’s an epidemic and clearly one of the worst industrial medicine disasters that’s ever been described. We’re counting thousands of cases…thousands of cases of the most severe form of black lung. And we’re not done counting yet. Silica is somewhere around 20 times more toxic [than coal dust alone] and can cause disease much more rapidly.
If coal was the key to prosperity for the people living in the Appalachian Mountain areas of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, then why–after 150 years of mining this natural resource–are these populations still some of the poorest in the entire country? This was always a false promise made by self-serving politicians and titans of industry who cared about nothing other than filling their own pockets with quick profits.
Based on 2017 figures, poverty rates in Kentucky and West Virginia ranked those states #47 and #48, respectively, out of the 50 US States and District of Columbia. Only Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi had higher rates of poverty.
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is an economic development partnership between federal, state, and local governments that maintains relevant detailed data bases on socioeconomic factors affecting the populations of the Appalachian region. According to its most recent data in 2017, West Virginia’s per capita market income (PCMI, a more accurate measure of buying power than simple per capita income) was $27,421—64% of the US average, while Kentucky’s PCMI was $30,777–71.8% of the US average.
Whenever mining has become less financially lucrative or the veins of coal played out, coal mining companies have simply moved on to other states or diversified into new areas of energy production. This left coal miners in rural areas of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky with few other employment options. Writer Gwynn Guilford breaks down the decline of West Virginia’s coal mining jobs in her article The 100-year Capitalist Experiment That Keeps Appalachia Poor, Sick and Stuck On Coal:
After peaking in 1940, at 140,000—around a third of the state’s workforce—there are now only around 11,600 working miners in West Virginia. That’s the lowest number of coal miners the state has had since 1890, equal to less than 2% of its workforce. It’s very clear that coal has failed to create jobs. It is, however, still the only way that many West Virginians can earn a decent middle-class wage.
Diversify the industrial base
It seems that we humans so rarely learn from the mistakes made in the past. Cities such a Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit boomed during the first half of the 20th century as heavy industries took advantage of coal’s abundance and relatively cheap price. However, as the land, air and water became more polluted, a tipping point was reached.
Poor quality of life factors combined with changing economic conditions saw many of these Rust-belt factories close, which in turn, caused waves of workers to migrate to warmer regions in the West and South where newer service-based industries were growing rapidly. [This is so typical of humans, isn’t it? We use all the resources, pollute and spoil one area and then move on to the next.] Even decades later, after expensive economic development campaigns, many of the cities in America’s former Rust-belt are still struggling with the forces of population and job loss.
In an era when we recognize that having a diversity of industries and talent is the secret to creating more livable, economically successful places, it should be clear that there’s a huge problem in basing an economy on a single industry or resource. What happens when the resource is exhausted or an industry is no longer viable in a competitive world where rapid changes in technology seem to happen overnight? Rust-belt cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit have struggled to regain a fraction of the economic stature they once had as centers of manufacturing. The success stories they have produced are centered around creating jobs in industries such as healthcare and education.
Instead of subsidizing and promoting a dying industry that’s also one of the world’s most polluting, why doesn’t the US federal government work in conjunction with states such as Kentucky and West Virginia to develop community colleges or technical institutes in mining areas where workers can be retrained for tomorrow’s jobs? Using the same model that has proven successful in many other states, these technical institutes would work in conjunction with local governments to draw new industries. Local colleges and institutes would be committed to job training that would match worker’s skills with the needs of the companies. This approach has helped create millions of jobs for the booming economies of the neighboring southeastern states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
It’s time for politicians in Washington to become forward thinking leaders for a change. They can start by creating real long-term prosperity and a healthy living environment in coal mining states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, the very places that enabled the rise of America’s past economic might. Now, as newer, cleaner technologies take center stage, it’s time for both the government and the people who live in mining areas to recognize the writing that’s been evident on the proverbial wall for many decades now. Coal mining is a dying industry and the only way forward is change, specifically through education, job training and the promotion of smart economic development in a region that’s been lied to and used for far too long.