Coal and the Price of Prosperity

The following is an updated post from 2019 which is relevant to the policy negotiations currently taking place in the US Senate.

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat from West Virginia, has told the White House that “he strongly opposes the clean electricity program” that’s at the heart of the Biden administration’s climate policy.  The clean electricity program would reward utilities that switch from burning fossil fuels — such as coal and gas — to renewable energy sources, and penalize those that do not.

While Manchin pretends to be fighting for the welfare of his constituents, a closer look at his personal financial ties to the coal industry reveals his true intention — to enrich himself and his family.

According to Coral Davenport’s September 19th article in the New York Times, Senator Manchin profits personally from this polluting industry.

 He owns stock valued at between $1 million and $5 million in Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage firm which he founded in 1988. He gave control of the firm to his son, Joseph, after he was elected West Virginia secretary of state in 2000. Last year, Mr. Manchin made $491,949 in dividends from his Enersystems stock, according to his Senate financial disclosure report.

Perhaps a self-absorbed Senator Manchin should take a few minutes to review the recent history of coal use and carefully consider the long-term physical health and financial prosperity of his constituents, especially the ones who are still being led to believe they can depend on jobs in this dying industry.

Brief Historical Overview

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.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania  — once the iron and steel capital of the USA –pictured here in the late 1940s at a time when the burning of ‘coking’ coal in the city’s factories filled the skies with smoke, at times requiring street lights to be turned on during the day. Photo Credit: University of Pittsburgh Library.

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 COconcentration 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

Former president 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 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 were warning that the damage caused to Earth’s atmosphere may be at the point of no return. Moreover, his rhetoric continued 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.

“Trump Digs Coal” signs at a campaign rally in West Virginia’s capital, Charleston. Photo Credit: Steve Helber for Associated Press

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.

I know many former West Virginians who’ve moved to the area of North Carolina where I currently live. Their stories are similar. They needed jobs and North Carolina was just one tank of gas away.

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.

Further insights into the region’s poverty have been released by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), 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 the ARC’s 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.

Wherever 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.

The future is now

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 like Senator Manchin to become forward thinking leaders who show that they indeed care about the future of their constituents. They can start by advocating for changes that would bring about 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. 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.

Perhaps Senator Manchin should focus his own personal energy (and ample political capital) on providing educational opportunities that would endow his West Virginia constituents with the job skills necessary to draw the kind of 21st century industries that can transform the state’s economy. Otherwise, the endemic poverty that pervades West Virginia’s and eastern Kentucky’s coal country will remain, and the only people to prosper will continue to be self-serving politicians and coal industry CEOs.


Categories: Environment, Health and Well-being, PoliticsTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. Activist Greta Thunberg stopped in Iowa City Friday on her way west. She joined locals headed by high school students to tell the U of IA to speed up the conversion of a power plant from coal to renewables. They are about halfway there now. It was a huge crowd and full of young people. My daughter drove our teenage grand-daughter an hour and a half so she could join in. She said it was ‘awesome’.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Very good article and your research was so spot on. I also think what happened in coal mining states that were losing jobs and many with illnesses as a result of the mines, led to the opiate addiction. People may have been introduced to the drugs for legitimate reasons but realized the “feel good “effect and kept asking for refills or got it off the streets. And of course the big companies were delighted. That’s another story for you to address.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Jane,

      Yes, you’re right about the connections between poverty, despair, health problems and addiction to opiates in the poorer areas of Appalachia. I’ve been wanting to write about these issues for some time, but there’s so much information available that it seemed an overwhelming topic to address. Thanks so much for your support!


  3. Powerful writing, Henry — the only piece I’ve ever seen on this topic. Lies, damn lies…

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    Brilliant, informative essay. Here’s an excerpt:

    “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.”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Excellent article, Henry. An informative and well reasoned analysis of our refusal to let go of our dependency on an industry that’s harmful to both people and their environment and no longer viable. Your conclusion and recommendations for change deserve attention.

    Sadly, the communities affected continue to suffer and hold on to false promises. As you mention in your article: “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.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      Thank you for your comments!

      What I find particularly galling is that opportunistic politicians have continually exploited the vulnerable people of the central Appalachians. I grew up in a rural area of the American South and I understand how isolation and fear can play into the hands of those in power who seek to manipulate the poor for their own benefit, but offer very little other than empty promises. This is the reason many ‘good ole boy’ politicians prefer keeping the masses ignorant since this makes them easier to manipulate.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great research and prose, Henry! Really a timely piece. Knowing your question “why” is rhetorical, I’ll respond from my rhetorical bias. Little has changed for Appalachia because it will cost the ‘haves’ sums they do not intend to part with to lift anyone but themselves higher!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for your comments! Rhetorical indeed. The poverty found in central Appalachia is clearly about the exploitation of resources in order to further enrich the haves while ignoring the needs of those who made them so.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well done, Henry. Not only are they subsidizing and promoting coal, but the same also goes for animal agriculture. Indeed, an excellent article. But you used forward-thinking and Washington politicians in the same sentence. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes, it’s certain that forward-thinking does not describe today’s Washington politicians, if it ever did. What I find interesting is how many positive initiatives are taking place on the local level in communities across the USA. It seems a lot of communities have given up on waiting for solutions from our 2 political corporations (dems and repubs) and are taking matters that affect their daily lives into their own hands.

      I share your feelings about the animal agriculture industry. I noticed Trump was crowing today that China was buying more pork from the USA. Of course, as a serial liar, he could have been making that up, but the idea was disgusting. The last thing rural America needs is more pig farms to pollute the waterways and stink up the neighborhoods. The same goes for the beef and chicken industries. They’re all disgusting and inhumane!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent. I’m going to reblog it so more people can read it. Than you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well written, and well researched, as per your usual. Thought-provoking. Henry, you never disappoint.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great article. It should come as eye-opening to all the people in the world who seek short-term profits. While China continues to use coal it also invests and develops alternative types of energy. The strategy of the CCP is to focus on long-term sustainable ways of producing energy. It might take a long time, but at least the foundation for change has been laid. I hope that the U.S government will rethink its priorities and choose in favour of economic and climatic sustainability.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you’re right. China is far ahead of the USA in its quest to diversify its energy mix. Much of the change there has been facilitated to pacify the population in China’s big polluted cities. Chinese citizens began demanding cleaner air and the government took action. I think the US is falling behind because pollution isn’t such an overt in-your-face issue as it has been in China. Americans are going to have to wake up to the challenge, take steps to change their wasteful habits and demand government policy changes on a systematic level. I’m just not sure how many natural disasters it will take to wake them out of their slumber. Thanks for your insightful comments!


      • Well, it’s not only the Americans! To be honest I think easy and fast money are also on big companies’ agenda all over the world instead of climate concerns. And not only. We never know when some people will wake up. Hopefully not before it’s too late!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Well said, Henry. The coal mining industry is a great example of profit over lives and the environment. I read an article recently about silica from countertops having the same effect on people shops who don’t safegaurd their workers. Profit over lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s incredibly sad but true that ours is a self-destructive species. Truths about climate change, and about many other things, are staring all of us directly in the face, yet many people could care less.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Henry, it’s distressing to observe that so little has changed since you first published this article. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is such a disappointment. He has failed the American people, including his own constituents, when we most need his support for transitioning to the clean electricity program. To rephrase a biblical quote: What does it profit our government representatives to increase their fossil fuel dividends and suffer the loss of a habitable Earth? I could only imagine that Manchin and others like him are counting on Jeff Bezos to rocket their families to some other planet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      The situation is truly distressing as the USA’s political divide is preventing any meaningful action on climate change. It’s sad that many Americans can be so easily fooled by self-serving politicians like Manchin.

      Liked by 1 person

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