This story was produced as part of What's Next, West Virginia?, a collaboration between West Virginia Public Broadcasting, West Virginia Center for Civic Life, and West Virginia Community Development Hub, among others.
Over the past two years, 1,800 coal miners in Boone County have been laid off from work—that’s a fifth of the county’s total labor force. And the crisis doesn’t show any signs of slowing. At the end of July, Alpha Natural Resources announced it expects to lay off 1,100 more workers at 11 mines in southern West Virginia.
The West Virginia Coal Festival, held every year at the end of June in the county seat of Madison, is a good place to gauge how the layoffs are affecting everyday life for Boone County families--not only the economy, but also the political landscape and discussions about the future.
If the layoffs continue, said coal miner Daniel Smith, Boone County will become a “ghost town,” and many others at the festival agreed.
“It’s going to be a ghost town. [...] Everybody will leave here,” said Smith.
Smith sat with his family in a booth on the festival’s main drag, selling quilts to passersby. Daniel said if he loses his job--as he assumes he will--he’ll leave, too.
Many already are--for Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana. For those miners still working, life is uncertain. In the past two years, one fifth of Boone County’s labor force has lost a coal mining job.
Needless to say, it’s affected Boone County residents for the worse. But what "worse" looks like exactly depends on who you ask.
Will they find jobs here? And will those jobs pay?
Angela Smith, who’s married to coal miner Daniel Smith, said her husband’s company has closed six mines in the area in recent years.
“That is hundreds and hundreds of men just in Logan county that lost their jobs. That’s a lot of children who don’t have a parent who makes money anymore,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of wives out here struggling to find a way to feed their kids. Then you’re going to have increased drug usage. You’re going to have increased theft.”
Angela is worried that some of her neighbors are getting desperate and turning to crime to make ends meet.
“We’ve had thefts up and down our road and we live in a great area,” she said.
Stealing probably is an extreme case--others are simply cashing out their assets to pay the bills.
"There's not a road that intersects Route 119 where you don't see several vehicles for sale. There's not a road you can travel down that you don't see homes for sale," said Roger Horton, a retired miner now working with a lobbying group called Citizens for Coal.
“Our miners are not going to just lay down. They are going to find work,” said Horton. “But the question is, are they going to find it here? And if they do find it here, is it going to be a job that pays nearly as much? Is it going to be a job that has the benefit package they enjoy now? I say not.”
Coal pays well. According to The Charleston Gazette’s analysis of data from Workforce West Virginia, Boone County’s annual wages averaged $50,670 in 2013, the highest in the state.
Guy Mitchell, a miner who has worked at six different mines in the past two years, says many of his friends have switched careers because of the instability and uncertainty in the coal industry right now, even though it means making half of what they used to as miners.
“I’ve had probably 10 or 15 different [friends] go into different jobs, take a big pay cut, just to have job security. State jobs for state roads or maybe even logging--just whatever really they can find,” explained Mitchell.
When Mitchell’s brother lost his job, he opened up his own motorcycle shop, and his wife went to work. It doesn’t pay as well as mining, but he’s making a living.
But even staying in the mines doesn’t necessarily guarantee the high wages it once did. Guy says companies are laying off workers as full time employees and rehiring them as contractors, for less money.
“You make about $4 or $5 less on the hour and no insurance, because the coal market’s down and they can’t afford to pay that rate. They’re trying to find different means to keep people working,” he said.
Willie Kimler’s father has so far kept his job in the mines. Even so, the younger Kimler--the college-bound president of his high school graduating class--doesn’t see a future for himself in Boone.
“I don’t plan on going into the mines because the market doesn’t look good and that would be kind of like a death wish. I plan on going to college and trying to get a degree, and that degree isn’t really going to come in handy here,” he said.
Unless the coal market picks up, Willie said, everyone will simply move away. And it’s not because those in the area don’t like life there.
“I love my community and where I grew up, and I’ll always come back, but I don’t see myself living here in 10 years.”
A Changing Political Landscape
Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Natalie Tennant are competing for the U.S. Senate seat soon to be vacated by the retiring Jay Rockefeller. Capito walks down State Street during the festival, clad in a snappy red white and blue outfit and flanked by supporters in black shirts that read “Coal Miners for Capito.”
Tennant, the current Secretary of State and a former mascot for West Virginia University’s football team, the Mountaineers, shoots off her musket into the sky.
“This is the Coal Festival, this ain’t a damn campaign rally!” heckled retired miner Jerry Wilson, 77, of Julian.
Like many, Wilson blames Washington Democrats--especially President Obama and his administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--for the downturn in coal production and job losses in the area.
“If Washington doesn’t change, it’s done,” he said. “That’s the way I see it. So is West Virginia. West Virginia’s coal, that’s all.”
This anger at the top level of government over coal layoffs is remaking Boone County’s political landscape.
“Obama is the greatest gift to the Republican party [that] we’ve ever had. It’s even respectable to be a Republican in Boone County,” said Larry Lyon of the Boone County Republicans.
Until the last election, Boone County hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate for almost 30 years. But the popular perception that Obama’s EPA is killing coal jobs is affecting the vote in big ways, said Lyon. He pointed to a table where Boone Countians were registering to vote.
"People that register over there either register Independent or Republican. Very few register Democrat now," said Lyon.
Alive among the people of Boone County is a hope that if you could just get rid of President Obama, things would get better. But there’s evidence that’s not the case.
The recent tightening of emissions standards on coal burning power plants--which actually dates back to Clean Air Act amendments under the Bush administration--is just one of a host of factors at play.
One of the major ones is simply scarcity. After more than 100 years of mining in West Virginia, there’s less minable coal, and what’s left is harder to mine. That means it costs more to mine, and thus, costs more to buy. Buyers are increasingly looking to lower-cost coal from other regions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A 2008 forecast by West Virginia University predicted that coal production in Central Appalachia would fall by nearly 40% by 2030, due in part to the depletion of reserves.
Several people at the Coal Festival expressed some version of this statement: if you want to burn less coal to reduce carbon emissions and take care of the planet--fine, but...
“You introduce it gradually. It’s something that has to be 30, 40, 50 years worth of work,” said Angela Smith. “You don’t just come in and shut down an entire industry that supports three states.”
But the people of Boone County may not have that long to wait. In 1995, the U.S. Bureau of Mines predicted that the county only had 20 years worth of economically mineable coal left. That, of course, was almost exactly 20 years ago.
Planning for The Future
Of all the people at the Coal Festival, none saw a particularly bright future for Boone County, unless coal makes a comeback. It’s coal or leave, they all said. Well, except for one.
When a giant coal sludge dam burst on nearby Buffalo Creek in neighboring Logan County on February 26, 1972, Kerry Albright’s mother and brother drowned in the coal slurry, but not before throwing him to safety on the mountainside. He’s known as the Buffalo Creek “Miracle Baby.”
Now a resident of Brooklyn, New York, Albright is working on a documentary about his story. In the process, he has talked to a lot of locals about the coal issue--some pro, some anti--but, he says, most fall right in the middle.
“But they’re just kind of confused about if they don’t have this industry, what do they have? Which is a very legitimate concern, and it’s a legitimate question,” Albright explained.
He says people feel stuck, because they’re just not seeing any other options.
“It seems like they even feel that they are putting all their eggs in one basket. To get another basket is something that they just can’t do overnight,” he said.
Albright says that instead of putting all our eggs in one basket, he’d like to see some planning for the future.
“Whether we like it or not, coal is eventually going to leave, whether it’s 300 years, 400 years, or tomorrow,” he said. “Because technology advances. Everything advances. And I just really want the people of Boone, and of West Virginia, to plan for that event instead of waiting for the disaster to happen.”
Kerry has survived one coal-related disaster, and he hopes he doesn’t have to see another.