While Appalachia is known for its coal mines, which produce approximately one third of the nation’s coal, the region must turn to new industries to survive as the supply of coal is depleted, a panel of experts said Tuesday in an event sponsored by the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
An audience of about 40 gathered in Kroon Hall to discuss the future of Appalachia without the lucrative industry of mountaintop coal mining. As the coal supply declines and labor is mechanized, more and more miners are becoming unemployed, event moderator Heidi Binko FES ’02 said.
Justin Maxson, president of the Berea, Ky.-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which helps communities develop economic alternatives to coal mining, said that despite the wealth generated by the mining industry, local poverty rates can reach as high as 40 percent in central Appalachia, which includes parts of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Although only 2 percent of the Appalachian workforce is directly employed in the mining industry, Maxson blamed the coal industry for driving out industries that are not as immediately profitable. He added that coal mining contributes to a variety of environmental and health woes including acid rain, deforestation and black lung disease, which is caused by long exposure to coal dust.
Maxson likened the current decline in the coal industry to standing on the edge of cliff.
“Twenty years from now, coal will not come out of the ground the same way it does today [through mountaintop coal mining],” he said. “It is time to step up in a transition or end up at the bottom of the cliff.”
Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, a consulting firm based in Morgantown, W.Va., said the challenges currently presented by coal pollution could offer opportunities for job creation. Hansen said restoration projects such as cleaning streams polluted by the thousands of abandoned mines could be restored to benefit local economies. Not only will hiring people to clean the streams create jobs, he said, but these areas could also be converted to be covered with wind mills and solar panels. Hansen pointed to the presence of community-owned wind energy farms in Minnesota as a model for development that regions in Appalachia could follow.
Denise Barrett, executive director of the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Development, pointed to farming as another potential source of local revenue. Increased food production will draw more workers to farms, Barrett added, noting that graduates from universities such as Virginia Tech provide technical advice to help improve local farms’ productivity and sustainability. But she warned that current regulations prefer large, company farms to small farms owned by community residents.
Maxson also blamed state governments for being narrow-minded by supporting the coal companies. Members of the state governments, he said, often work in close collaboration with coal company-funded special interests groups and therefore do not pay enough attention to the idea of a future without coal. He added that the failure to distinguish between the interests of coal companies and coal miners has worsened the cycle of poverty and waste.
“It’s not a lack of ideas,” he said. “It’s a lack of political responsibility.”
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, approximately half of the nation’s energy is produced by coal.