You are here

Appalachia

Kicking Them While They’re Down: What Trump is Doing to Appalachia

By Kenneth Surin - CounterPunch, April 11, 2017; Photo by Don O’Brien | CC BY 2.0

Appalachia voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who won it by a resounding 63%-33%.  Appalachia as a region is defined by federal law, and consists of 490 counties in 13 states.  Hillary Clinton won only 21 of these counties.  According to the right-wing Washington Examiner, “She did not win a single county in Appalachia that is mostly white, non-college-educated and has a population of under 100,000 people”.

Political analysts have used a fine-tooth comb to go over the issue of Trump’s popularity with less-educated whites, so there is no need to repeat their findings here.

More interesting, and not so much discussed thus far, is the potential impact on Appalachia of the budgetary policies announced recently by the Trump administration.  In a nutshell:  what’s been announced may “make America great again”, but it almost certainly won’t do this for Appalachia (not that the rest of the country, except for the plutocracy, is likely to benefit either).

Appalachia is one of the poorest regions in the US.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has been earmarked for elimination by Trump, as has the Economic Development Administration (EDA)– more about this later.  The ARC compiles statistics on Appalachian poverty, income, and employment.

According to the ARC 2010-2014 Poverty Rate report, the poverty rate across the US was 15.6% compared to 19.7% in the Appalachian region of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

There are significant variations between different Appalachian states where poverty rates are concerned.  For example, the Virginian statewide rate is 11.5% as opposed to an 18.8% rate for the Appalachian region overall.

(This statistic is however somewhat misleading when used in this way because Virginia’s overall poverty rate is greatly reduced by the economic contribution of affluent northern Virginia (NoVa) with its abundance of well-paid government and tech jobs.  There are “two Virginias” where income disparities are concerned, and the poverty rate in Appalachian Virginia, as opposed to NoVa, is a more accurate 18.8%.)

The state with the worst regional poverty rate is Kentucky with a 25.4% rate in its Appalachian portion as opposed to the 18.9% rate for the rest of the state.

The cause of this poverty is not so much unemployment (though that is a contributing factor), but desperately low income levels.

How the Democrats Lost West Virginia and the Coal Miners To Trump

By Les Leopold - Common Dreams, April 7, 2017

“C’mon, fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You’re going back to work.” ― Donald Trump on signing an executive order to reverse the Obama Administration’s rules on coal, March 28, 2017.

Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 buried Barry Goldwater in West Virginia, 67.9 percent to 32.1 percent. By 2016, Trump completely reversed that landslide by defeating Hillary Clinton 67.9 percent to 26.2 percent. What happened to turn such a deep blue state into flaming red?

The Democratic Party establishment has a simple explanation: West Virginians are so hung up on cultural issues like guns, gays, abortion and their mythical self-image as “coal country” that they vote against their own material interests. They seem impervious to the fact that they are major beneficiaries of Obamacare and Medicaid. They don’t seem to notice that health care jobs far exceed coal-related jobs which have been decimated by new technologies, and market competition from natural gas and renewables.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently writes, “So West Virginia voted overwhelmingly against its own interests. ....Coal country residents.... were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more.”

Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs

By Jill Richardson - CounterPunch, March 30, 2017

When Barack Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, Scientific American used his own words to criticize it for not going far enough.

“There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change,” Obama said. “The science tells us we have to do more.”

Scientific American analyzed the Clean Power Plan and agreed, concluding that Obama’s plan didn’t go far enough, and would fail to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Now, Trump is dismantling even that. Obama’s insufficient effort to address climate change is gone with a stroke of Trump’s pen.

The plan was to go into effect in 2022, reducing pollution in three ways. First, by improving the efficiency of coal-fired power plants. Second, by swapping coal for cleaner natural gas. And third, by replacing fossil fuel energy with clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Trump claims the plan puts coal miners out of work. But it hadn’t even been implemented yet. In reality, cheap natural gas and the use of machines instead of people to mine coal are responsible for putting far more miners out of work.

In other words, Trump is using sympathetic out-of-work miners as a cover for what is really just a handout to dirty industry.

Meanwhile, Trump is cutting job training programs for coal country. Given that, it’s hard to believe he cares at all about jobs for coal miners.

And, with a surge in cases of fatal black lung disease among miners in Appalachia, anyone who truly cared about miners would preserve the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which helps coal miners get black lung benefits.

In short, Trump’s killing of the Clean Power Plan is a handout to dirty industry with no regard for the well-being of coal miners. And it’s putting us even further behind in our efforts to leave the next generation a habitable planet.

A better leader would find a way to promote clean forms of energy while simultaneously creating good jobs for Americans. Of course, that’s exactly what Obama’s one-time “green jobs” czar Van Jones called for, and the Republicans hated him.

But the fact of the matter is that climate-smart policies create jobs. They create jobs retrofitting buildings, manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, innovating to create more efficient batteries, and discovering the best way to upgrade our power grid.

It seems that, if we installed a wind turbine near the White House, Trump could single handedly provide the nation with clean energy from all of the bluster coming out of his mouth.

In the meantime, catastrophic climate change is as much of a crisis as ever, and the clock is ticking.

Let Us Now Praise A Coal Miner: Chuck Nelson Is An American Hero

By Jonathan Rosenblum - Common Dreams, March 26, 2017

Among the hundreds of coal miners I have interviewed over the years, retired coal miner Chuck Nelson has always been among the most fearless truth-tellers in the coal country of West Virginia.

An indefatigable presence at hearings, meetings, media briefings, and in his beloved mountains, Nelson’s powerful voice and witness have never been needed more than now—during this unending “war” on Appalachia by the coal industry and its sycophants in state halls and Washington, DC.

“Chuck Nelson is an invaluable member of our community,” said Maria Gunnoe, the Goldman Prize Award recipient with Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. “The coal industry may have broken his health down, but they sure didn’t break his Appalachian spirit to always fight for something better.”

A 4th generation union coal miner, who spent 30 years working in underground mines, Nelson has witnessed first-hand the demise of a once strong union movement for workplace safety and wage justice, the unraveling of deeply rooted communities, the clear-cut destruction of his mountain forests and poisoning of his neighbors, and the fierce struggle of local communities to defend their health, land and ways of life.

Trump Just Signed Away Underground Coal Mining Jobs

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, February 18, 2017

Before coal miners begin rejoicing the end of “Obama’s War on Coal,” they should realize the war on their jobs isn’t over—that war began well before Barack Obama took the oath of office.

Amid the name calling, political propaganda, and willful ignorance that came as a result of coal industry’s “War on Coal” campaign, many Appalachian miners forgot a very important fact, their jobs have always been considered overhead on the company’s quarterly statements. Their job, like any other overhead such as the cost of supplies, fuel, equipment etc., is a drain on the company’s overall profit. Within our system of capitalism and free market economics, businesses must continually seek to reduce expenses (overhead) so they can increase their quarterly returns, satisfy their stockholders, and  compete with other companies on a global scale.

As Bruce Stanley stated in the new documentary film Blood on the Mountain, “Coal doesn’t want you to have a job, because coal does better if you don’t have a job.  That’s benefits that don’t have to be paid, that’s salaries that don’t have to be paid, that’s so when you’re broken and busted you don’t have to be cared for.”

If anything, Trump’s signature paved the way to reducing mining jobs in Appalachia by opening the floodgates on surface mining, a highly productive form of mining that requires fewer miners who can be paid lower wages. If a coal company can make a higher profit by surface mining, why would they be inclined to open and operate as many underground mines?

This has not been a win for coal miners, this has been another win for coal companies.

Clean energy: The challenge of achieving a ‘just transition’ for workers

By Sophie Yeo - Carbon Brief, January 4, 2017

Tackling climate change is good for the economy, good for business and good for people. This is the narrative often pushed out by campaigners, researchers and governments around the world.

But while measures to curb emissions and reduce the impacts of rising temperatures will be good for the many, the few who work in industries affected by climate policies risk losing their livelihoods as the economy leans increasingly upon renewable energy.

Around the world, there is a growing movement demanding a “just transition” for the workforce, so that workers are not left in the cold as fossil fuels become consigned to the past.

Peabody and the Navajo tribe

Arizona’s Navajo tribe is one example of a community already fighting for a just transition. This Native American group signed a lease in 1964 allowing Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal company, to mine for coal on reservation lands. Now, 50 years later, many are battling against the impacts of this deal.

When they signed the lease, the company agreed to “employ Navajo Indians when available in all positions for which…they are qualified”. Since then, Peabody has been a major employer of tribe members — 90% of the 430-person workforce of its Kayenta mine are native people.

Yet, while Peabody has provided jobs and money, poverty rates on the Navajo Nation Reservation are more than twice as high as the Arizona state average, and benefits have come at the expense of the local environment.

The Navajo tribe has seen their water sources dwindle as Peabody has used the reservation’s aquifer to turn coal into slurry and pump it down a pipeline. Coal plants surrounding the reservation have polluted the air, clouding the view of the nearby Grand Canyon and other national parks. It is also a source of CO2, the primary contributor of human-caused climate change.

Members of the Navajo tribe, alongside the Hopi tribe that also lives in the area, are calling for a “just transition” away from coal — one that will see old jobs tied to the polluting coal industry replaced with clean and profitable work.

One group, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, is trying to create economic opportunities that will help to release the community from its reliance on coal. For instance, they have tried to revive the traditional Navajo wool market, developing partnerships with wool buyers and organising an annual Wool Buy.

It has also started a solar project, which aims to install a series of 20MW to 200MW solar installations on abandoned coal mining land, transforming the reservation’s old role as an energy provider.

The idea has gone global. In Ghana, for instance, the government has developed a programme to plant more trees, simultaneously improving the landscape, providing jobs, and offering a diversified source of livelihoods for farmers. Peasant farmers and the rural unemployed were involved in planting species such as teak, eucalyptus, cassia and mahogany, generating 12,595 full-time jobs.

In Port Augusta, a town of 14,000 people in South Australia, there is a plan underway to install a solar thermal plant to replace the town’s coal industry. This became even more urgent after the Alinta power station announced that it would close, potentially putting 250 jobs at risk.

If You Really Want to Help Appalachia

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 30, 2016

I’ve been writing this blog for 6 years now, working to hammer home many points. The most important have included the coal industry’s means of winning the hearts and minds of our mountain communities, and how people in the environmental camps have ignored the industry’s acculturation of Appalachian values.

Since leaving the coal industry, I’ve tried to get folks to understand that we Appalachians, coal miner’s especially, do not respond to traditional environmentalist messaging. At minimum, those who agree with the environmental concerns are not going to push their throats further into the coal industry’s blade. More often, they will join in the socialized ridicule of those who are being othered, i.e. the environmentalists. What is needed is for people to understand the issues and the way we have been manipulated and controlled, then apply it to their own communication strategy.

As a 9th generation Appalachian and the 5th generation of my family to have worked in the mines, I can say with confidence that no outside organization will ever be successful in turning the tide in Appalachia. We have been fighting the coal industry for 150 years and fighting poverty for the last 50+. Millions of dollars have been funneled in through organizations like the Appalachian Regional Commission, and yet we are still fighting the same battles.

So if you really want to help Appalachia, you’ll help us help ourselves.

The first step is to tear down the coal industry’s facade of benevolence, and remind people of the industry’s history in our region. Many people already distrust the industry, but will fight for it in the face of an outside threat. Coal mining is part of our identity, and the coal industry has spun the “War on Coal” to be a threat to that identity. The result, as Dr. Shannon Bell has stated in her book Fighting King Coal, is the cultural hegemony of our region.

So what do we do to fix it since there’s no silver bullet?

It will take a lot, there’s no doubt about it, but the best place to to start is with educating the public. In a technological world where audio/visual has become the primary means of conveying a message, we must embrace it. This is why I focused a bit on film and broadcast journalism during my recent studies at Berea College. Just as I was re-entering the world from four years of college, some wonderful folks had already done a lot of work before me and the documentary film Blood on the Mountain was in the process of being released.

I believe the film has become the best means to help tear down the industry’s previously mentioned facade of benevolence towards Appalachia. It shows the true history of coal and how they have maintained control of us, even in contemporary times, dividing our communities, destroying the unions, and raping our lands.

In many ways, the film embodies the very mission I have dedicated this blog—and my life—to achieving . When I was asked by the filmmakers to be interviewed for the film, and later to help get it out to as many people as possible,  I saw it as a perfect opportunity to bring real tangible change to my mountain home.

The next phase of the film is coming, but we need the funding to accomplish it. We want to take this film into as many union halls, churches, homes, and community centers as possible FOR FREE . We want to turn it into a tool that can be used not only in Appalachia, but in any area where people face the same issues we face with corporate corruption.

The coal industry has ruled our lives under false illusions and economic control. We can break free, but people, both in Appalachia and outside of Appalachia, must better understand the mechanisms of control through which industries operate, and understand how we can empower entire Appalachian communities to fight against them. I wish I could say that the past 15 years of activism in the region have accomplished this in some small way, but the region’s continued support of men like Mitch McConnell—and now Jim Justice and Donald Trump—is pretty strong evidence to the contrary.

It pains me to think of the amount of time and money that has been invested in so many organization’s “grassroots” campaigns, only to see these kinds of outcomes. We are overdue for this new strategy.

We have launched a Kickstarter to fund Blood on the Mountain’s public outreach campaign. Our goal is $25,000 and it is all or nothing, meaning, unless we raise the full amount, we don’t get anything. We are going to use the funds we received to create a curricula and educational materials to complement the film, and we will use the remaining funds to get the film into Appalachian communities—FOR FREE.

Based on the size of your donation, you can receive DVD copies of the documentary, digital access to it, other documentaries such as The Appalachians and Coal Country,  and many other wonderful rewards. So please, give what you can give and advocate to help us raise money for this outreach. Given the divisiveness of our recent election, we need this film to bring people together, now, more than ever.

So please, please share this post and the Kickstarter link far and wide. Donate/purchase a copy of the film and more.

Without the Union…

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 20, 2016

By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It  didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.

At one time, it seemed as though there were more union miners than non-union in central Appalachia. Throughout the mid-1970s and 80s, dozens of large union mining complexes (mines with attached coal preparation facilities and rail service) were operating in the region. These complexes employed thousands of men, and many women.

As I understood it, life was good for those who worked at the complexes. Miners made a union wage, had union benefits including guaranteed days off, voluntary overtime, excellent retirement and healthcare benefits, and worker’s rights that enhanced the safety culture at the mine. The sheer size of the complexes also gave the miner’s many amenities not found at smaller truck mines, including large “clean” and “dirty” locker rooms with heated floors, showering facilities, and even paved parking lots. But they weren’t to last. The seams that supported larger facilities were rapidly depleted as more mechanized forms of mining, such as long wall systems, were being implemented.

And then the coal markets busted.

West Virginia, “Identity Decline” and Why Democrats Must Not Look Away From the Rural Poor

Power Failure: Appalachia Plans for Life Beyond Coal

By Keith Griffith - Equal Voice News, May 3, 2016

Harlan County, Kentucky -- On his first shift in the coal mine, Brandon Farley closed his eyes to steady his nerves as the powered cart he was riding disappeared into the mountainside. A third-generation coal miner in this Appalachian corner of Eastern Kentucky, Farley began working in the mines right out of high school and kept at it for 15 years, until he was laid off in late February.

Farley, now 32 and a married father of two, worked his way up in the Appalachian coal mines to a job as an underground electrician, running the high voltage cables that power heavy, specialized equipment at the mining face. Mining is the only work he knows.

In 2010, Farley was working at the Abner Branch mine when the roof collapsed, killing his friend Travis Brock, who was 29. Farley escaped serious injury in his own years as a miner, but his hands bear a miscellany of scars from minor accidents. 

"The juice is worth the squeeze," he says, glancing at his palms with a chuckle. "I never did look at the dangers as much as I did the money."

The money, for a while, was very good. Farley was making $25 an hour in the mines. With plenty of overtime -- Farley often worked 60-hour weeks -- experienced miners like him routinely made $80,000 to $100,000 a year. In Harlan County, which has about 28,000 residents, the median household income is $25,000.

Over 50 years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson toured Appalachia to kick off his "War on Poverty." Harlan County's poverty rate, which tracks roughly with the region's, was then 55 percent. It remains more than double the national average, at 32 percent, although those numbers typically don't account for government transfer payments, such as Social Security, safety net and veterans' benefits. (In 2014, Eastern Kentucky received $13.4 billion in government entitlements, making up more than a third of the region's income.)

Though it's long been a region of economic hardship, Appalachian Kentucky now faces a crisis of alarming proportions. Since the end of 2008, the region has lost more than 10,000 coal mining jobs, a decline of more than two-thirds. Kentucky's coal production is now at its lowest level since 1954, according to the state government. Other coal mining regions have been hit by the national decline in coal production, but none as hard as this one.

Locally, the collapse of coal is often blamed on President Barack Obama and environmental safeguards, which some residents say are needed to protect water, air and families. "This all began when Obama started his 'war on coal' -- and he did," says Farley, the laid-off miner. "If they are gonna do away with coal, why not put

Experts believe that the coal industry's decline in Kentucky has more to do with the abundance of cheap natural gas and drastically cheaper coal from surface mines in Wyoming. Regardless, there is a growing sense in Harlan County that coal isn't coming back.

After his latest layoff, Farley is now reluctantly looking for other kinds of work. "That's all we ever done is mine coal, though," he says. "It's the best job I ever had."

Farley finds the prospect of taking a significantly lower-paying job unpalatable, though even finding one is a challenge. After getting career counseling from the Harlan County Community Action Agency, Farley applied for work with railroad shipper CSX. But coal makes up the bulk of CSX's shipping business, and the company announced new rounds of layoffs the week that Farley applied.

"It's strange to hear the lonesome horn of a train anymore," says HCCAA Executive Director Donna Pace. "Used to be, that's all you heard."

Pages