Formation of the

  Coal Mining
  Mountaintop Removal
  Electricity from
    coal burning

  Reforming mountaintop

  Solid waste disposal
  Deep mining of coal
  Coal, people, politics,
    and money


Coal, People, Politics,
and Money      

     Industrialism run amok. If Charles Dickens had lived in West Virginia as it was transformed by industrialization, the bleakness of life spawned by laissez-faire capitalism would have been his theme. Scholarly research has portrayed southern Appalachia as a rural, agrarian ideal corrupted by industrialzation. See Ronald Eller's Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Southern Appalachian South.

     As is discussed in the "Forests" section of this web site, absentee ownership of land and resources is the rule in West Virginia. After the Civil War "outsiders," seeking wealth from timber, coal, oil, and gas, bought and gained control of most of the state's mineral rights. With money and jobs they nurtured a political system that kept, and still keeps, their interests protected. Life and limb were sacrificed to profit-seeking, almost all of which (profits) went out of state. Dependent upon jobs provided by the outsiders, local workers remained in areas with little infrastructure, a puny tax base, poor schools, inadequate health care, and politicians beholden to the outsiders.

    Disasters and deaths. The social cost to West Virginians of coal mining is a subject of novels, scholarly books, movies, family stories, and political tales; yet, it is too often downplayed when policy issues arise about coal mining. Too often lives are lost before long-needed, major reforms are made in laws governing coal mining. From 1883 through 1969 a total of 21,311 West Virginia miners died on the job.

     Coal-waste dams leak and burst . Of the many coal-mining tragedies which have beset West Virginians, the most noticeable during the age of television has been the deadly1972 Buffalo Creek flood. A mountain of water burst forth from a "gob pile" (coal-impoundment) dam along Buffalo Creek in Logan County. Once again the nation's eyes were on death and destruction in West Virginia. Death (125 people), emotional trauma, property damage (500 homes destroyed), publicity, excuses ("act of God"), litigation, then reform (SMCRA). For more:

     More recently in October 2000, Martin County in eastern Kentucky entered the national spotlight. An A.T. Massey Coal Co. subsidiary has a 72-acre coal waste dam that is located near a coal preparation plant, which is on top of abandoned underground coal mines. A leak in the dam occurred which released about 250 million gallons of thick coal slurry through the underground mines into two tributaries of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River which enters the Ohio River at Kenova, West Virginia. One huge mess! It would be like pulling the plug in a gargantuan bath tub.

     A massive cleanup followed the befouling of these streams. In February 2001 MSHA revoked the permit to operate the Kentucky impoundment as did the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet. The federal EPA is developing a restoration plan. In April 2001 American Rivers declared the Big Sandy River as the seventh most endangered river in the U.S. WVDEP in June 2001 sued Massey's Martin County Coal Co. concerning the spill.

     Serious questions have been raised about proper inspection and enforcement by two federal agencies -- MSHA and OSM. In particular, because there was a prior breach of the same sludge pond dam, one wonders if other measures should have been taken.

     At least 220 coal-waste dams in Appalachia are located on top of or adjacent to underground coal mines. MSHA once again is examining 77 [32 in W.Va.] or more such dams, having moderate breakthrough potential into underground mines.  MSHA data can be found at: .  WVDEP required operators of 51 coal waste dams to prove their safety.  

     The National Research Council, a part of the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, is studying what to do about coal waste dams. The study was authorized by Congress. The panel appears to be weighted with members who have ties to the coal industry.  

     Whether it's fatalistic or realistic, other sludge-holding facilities will fail. In Summer 2001 Massey operations in West Virginia had sludge spills in June (30,000 gallons), July (50,000 gallons), and August (15,000 gallons).

       Lost heritage.  What are we willing to destroy to keep coal mining jobs?   Take Blair Mountain in Logan County, for example.  To that rough, horseshoe-shaped ridge in 1921 about 15,000 union coal miners marched to wage war with Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin and his nonunion forces. The story engaged the American people.  President Harding sent in federal troops to quell the dispute. The encounter was one of the most important episodes of our national labor history. Arch Coal wants to decapitate Blair Mountain to remove its coal.  Hobet Mining's project will produce jobs.  At what cost to all West Virginians?  

      Politics. The influence of the coal industry in West Virginia politics remains strong, as can be seen by Governor Underwood's approval of 1998 legislation allowing strip-mining companies to fill in double the acreage of valleys without mitigation, a bill opposed by federal regulators and many within West Virginia's DEP. In the twentieth century being governor usually meant being beholden to the coal industry.

     One is reminded of the fate of Governor William Marland , the son of a coal miner. Three days after his inauguration in 1953, he startled the Legislature by proposing to tax natural resource industries so that schools and road-building could be funded. He said the state was "slowly being relegated to a poor status from both a cultural and economic viewpoint." Coal was too strong for Marland whose attempt failed as did much of his governorship thereafter. He was followed in office by Cecil Underwood, who was friendlier to coal producers than was Marland. Equally shocking, in 1965, on national television news, Marland, a recovering alcoholic, was interviewed after he was discovered driving a taxicab in Chicago. Defeated and forlorn, Bill Marland died not long after his re-emergence into public awareness. 

     In the early twentieth century two governors had proposed a severance tax on coal -- Governor Albert White in 1902 and Henry Hatfield in 1914. Both acknowledged the vast wealth leaving West Virginia from coal mining. Both strongly criticized the millionaires who lived in large northeastern cities and who paid little or no taxes on their booty.

      Not until the 1970s did the coal severance tax become law.  It essentially is a sales tax on coal (5% of the price) and acts as a natural resource depletion allowance, being (75%) distributed to the coal-producing counties. For thin-seam coal, which is the kind recovered in destroying mountaintops, the tax is only 1% to 2%. Unfortunately, the money tends not to be spent for economic development.

     Just imagine how different West Virginia would be today had our elected representives enacted a substantial severance tax to fund education and roads a hundred years ago. What a pity!     

     Jobs. Interestingly enough, as coal production in the Mountain State attains record highs, coal mining jobs have shrunk by over eighty percent since the late 1940s. In 1999 about 15,000 working coal miners were employed in West Virginia in contrast to almost 125,000 employed coal miners in 1948, with equivalent tonnage production. While mining jobs have declined precipitously, trade-service jobs in West Virginia have increased from 127,000 to 392,000 in the same period of time. Most of these jobs are low-paying.

      In recent years independent contractors have employed persons with specialized skills in the production of coal in numbers larger than the number of coal miners. Coal mining still provides about 50,000 direct jobs, including miners, mine contractors, and mine supply companies. Employment in strip mining is relatively small compared to the amount of coal produced and serves as financial incentive for coal companies to avoid deep mining and strip the coal instead. 

     Little education. For many decades education and coal mining jobs have been like oil and water -- they didn't mix. Strong backs didn't require strong minds. The social price has been a stubborn cultural disdain among too many people in the coal fields for a sound education.

     To the chagrin of the state Chamber of Commrce, West Virginia's productivity continues to fall behind. Why? The cause is not the work ethic but is our lack of educated, skilled workers, according to a 2001 Marshall University study entitled "The Myth of Economic Diversification." Productive states are those with skilled workers producing expensive products.

      Money. In the pursuit of public support numbers are the coal industry's strong suit.  The following figures primarily are for 1996.  West Virginia's low sulphur coal gave it the highest coal income in the country, although the state's tonnage, which was 16 % of all U.S. mined coal, was second to that of Wyoming. Total coal sales of $3.62 billion were close to the $3.98 billion from all mauufacturing activities in West Virginia.  Coal companies and  electric utilities, which burn the coal, paid almost 60 percent of all state business taxes. 

      In the southern coal fields, coal mining is a dominant employer --  Boone County (42%), Mingo County (30%), and Logan County (13.6%).  Coal miners' wages are almost double the average wage of other West Virginia workers.  Coal mining creates a multitude of jobs in other industries such as power generation, steelmaking, and other machinery manufacturing. Big Coal gets what it wants in these counties, and that does not include diversifying the local economy.

    Politicians are loathe to take actions which hold down or eliminate coal-mining jobs.  Miners and their families vote; mountains and streams do not.   Regulators, subject to influence by elected officials, shift and waffle and delay to accomodate the wishes of public office holders. 

     When Arch Coal in late 1998 announced hundreds of future layoffs at its (Hobet Mining) proposed 3,100-acre mine in Logan County, if EPA contiuued to block issuance of a Clean Water Act permit, the screams could be heard throughout West Virginia and in politicians' offices.  The state DEP caved in fast and issued its permit contingent upon the federal permit. EPA apparently was poised to accomodate the coal industry which knows how to make power plays. The third branch of government, the judiciary, stepped into the fray to decide the outcome. [See "Valley fills"]. 

       Fate. The pity is that mountaintop-removal advocates are doomed players in a drama greater than they are.  The amount of West Virginia coal is finite and the mining process continues to evolve in a way requiring less miners.  When the coal goes, so will the workers and their communities and their lifestyles.      

     West Virginia is dotted with hundreds of lifeless communities and shrinking towns once dependent upon coal mining. Just travel to McDowell County, if proof is required [population:  1950 - 98,887; 1990 - 35,233], or read the best-selling book Rocket Boys or see the movie based on that book, October Sky

     Exhaustion of resources and death of dependent communities are the ultimate fate of every extractive industry on the planet. West Virginia historian John Alexander Williams calls coal a curse for the land and the people.

      Big Coal and other out-of-state landholders own huge tracts of land throughout the state. Only they can decide its usage.

      Long-term dependence upon coal as the bedrock of West Virginia's economy is unwise and shortsighted.  Destroying our mountains and streams for short-term profits and jobs is a legacy which future generations of residents and visitors will only wonder:   "How could they possibly have done that?"  "It's money that matters..." goes the old Randy Newman song.  And so it is in this land of capitalism.

      The future. We are living through a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- a shift to a New Economy, an information based technology economy.  America is no stranger to dramatic shifts in its economy. 

      The agrarian economy began to change in 1845 when cheap steel enabled the Industrial Revolution. By 1870 the new industrial economy was displacing its predecessor and the transition resulted in a series of panics, crashes, and deflation.  Mass production slowly became the social currency helping to unite disparate groups of immigrants and easing the economic pain.  Our society's open, fluid approach integrated university research and production of goods; technology was harnassed for the consumer.  Cheap oil, readily available by 1918, fueled the changes. 

      By 1929 the mass consumption economy was displacing the industrial economy and that transition found railroads going bankrupt and steel mills closing.  In time the great American middle class developed.  Around 1981 when IBM introduced its personal computer, the new information based technology economy began, based on cheap semiconductors. 

      Today more than fifteen percent of the total national economy is the New Economy.  Coal is not part of the New Economy. In West Virginia we better prepare for the New Economy, one without coal as a significant economic force.  Since 1950 goods-producing jobs in West Virginia have fallen by fifty percent while service-producing jobs have increased almost four-hundred percent.  

      The mountains of West Virginia have withstood much in their many millions of years of existence.  They possess an enduring mystery that envelops all who come within their fold.  In the end they will prevail over those who exploit their essence for money.
Last updated on Tuesday, September 4, 2001