*Editor’s note: The following is co-written with the help of Lilith Ward, a sophomore in ENVS 230: The Role of Coal in Society.
In 2018, “about 687 million short tons of coal were consumed in the United States” according to the US Energy Information Administration. 687 million tons of coal is a substantial amount of coal, but it is hard to visualize the effects of coal consumption and coal production in the United States unless you’ve seen it first hand.
Coal Country is a region in Southern Appalachia that includes states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania. Here, the effects of coal production are highly visible.
For many residents of Coal Country, this statistic is more than just a number. In Southern Appalachia, coal influences economic status, political affiliation, and the acceptance or denial of climate change.
The importance of understanding the effects of coal on our planet runs deeper than simply understanding numbers and processes, and even deeper than knowing the history of mining in the United States.
“Even if you don’t know someone that’s directly involved in coal, you know someone who knows someone,” said RoyseAnn Day, a sophomore at Salem College.
RoyseAnn is from the southern region of Kentucky. While the region is more commonly known for agriculture, Day still had knowledge of the coal industry.
“…It [coal] is talked about in the whole state, not just in that one small area,” Day said.
In areas of Coal Country, especially in West Virginia, towns are so localized that residents may refer to county names instead of town names for easier recognition and identification.
Because counties and towns are based around one industry, there is a dependency on coal mining and extraction for job opportunities and income.
“Most people end up working either directly in a coal mine, or somehow tangentially related,” Grace Barger said.
Barger, a junior at Salem, had extended family who lived in West Virginia. Her great grandfather worked on the railroads transporting coal from one location to another.
Barger also recognized how the coal industry leads to unequal wealth distribution and issues of sustained wealth in Southern Appalachia.
Since the increase of natural gas use beginning in 2008, modern towns in Coal Country have been less reliant on the coal industry for their entire economic system. According to ZipRecruiter, the yearly average salary that a coal miner makes in West Virginia is $55,000 but depending on the position, miners can make as much as $80,000.
As the coal industry mechanized in the 1950s, however, jobs became more specialized. With this mechanization and specialization, the number of available jobs decreased.
Along with declining work, coal miners also deal with the dangers of working with large machinery, the health risks of coal dust inhalation and physically constraining environments. Mechanization does not mean that coal mining is safer for the environment.
Barger considers herself an environmentalist but not an environmental activist because her activism spreads farther than just environmental concerns.
“I have a deep distrust for the people who own the coal industries, and an understanding of the politics of [labor unions], and the issues they [workers] face in regards to controlling the wealth that they produce,” said Barger.
Day understands that coal-burning and production results in environmental pollution but she also feels for those who are involved.
“….[We] need to start working out of using those resources, but at the same time it is hard because of the people who are part of it,” Day said.
The effects of coal are less visible in Winston-Salem, simply because there are no large-scale mining operations in the area. To gain a better understanding of how communities in Coal Country are affected, a class of four Salem students traveled to several places in West Virginia as part of their ENVS 230: The Role of Coal in Society class.
Over Fall Break, students were able to witness the effects of coal and its devastating absence in the ghost towns rife with abandoned buildings and closed storefronts.
Conveyor belts, used to transport coal, sprawl over winding mountain roads. Many of them are no longer in use, but their towering presence serves as a reminder of the influence coal mining has on towns like Naoma, West Virginia where the office of the Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) is located.
With the rise of surface and mountaintop mining, the activists of CRMW have been advocating for “social, economic, and environmental justice” according to their website. The organization consists of volunteers, all of whom have some connection to coal mining. One volunteer I spoke with was a retired miner, himself.
CRMW has been involved in activism since 1998 and they were one of many organizations responsible for the relocation of an elementary school from underneath a coal waste impoundment in 2012.
Still, the deep connection of mining within Naoma and surrounding counties puts the volunteers at odds with the rest of the region.
And this is the dilemma that comes with the economic, environmental and regulatory policies of the past and the future.
How do we decide, whether as a singular government, and the entire country, or the majority of the world itself, if people get to keep their livelihood?
When a surface mine construction manager readily acknowledged the declining coal industry in the United States, he countered with the economic boom caused by mining and, more recently, hydraulic fracturing or fracking for natural gas.
Fracking, in particular, creates a temporary boom in jobs that are often outsourced to companies in other regions of the U.S. Both nonrenewable resources emit pollutants that affect air and water quality and can irrevocably alter the land and communities of people who reside there.
The health of our planet is essential to all of us, but we have to ensure that we are not putting coal miners, and Coal Country in a position that could damage the well-being of families strung across the Appalachian Mountains.