Since the days when mules carted coal and miners were paid in company credit, coal has heavily influenced the economy of Central Appalachia. But today, far fewer people make a living in mining here. West Virginia had 132,000 miners in 1950. Today there are fewer than 20,000, and that number is falling.
There’s no single factor driving the decline. It’s due to cheap and newly-abundant natural gas; limits on coal-burning power plants; and increased competition from Wyoming, where coal is cheaper to mine and lower in polluting sulfur. And finally, after over 100 years of intensive mining, Appalachia’s coal seams are simply becoming mined out, and the seams that are left are thinner–more difficult, and more expensive to mine.
Traditionally coal-dependent communities are starting to ask themselves tough questions about the future of their economy.
The West Virginia Coal Festival
Boone County, WV, has lost more coal mining jobs than any other county in the nation, according to a 2014 analysis by SNL Financial. A fifth of the county’s total labor force has been laid off from their coal mining job.
“What’s Next, West Virginia?” traveled to Boone County in search of the human side of this staggering figure at the WV Coal Festival, held every year at the end of June in Madison. We talked to residents about how the layoffs are affecting their everyday lives, and how they’re thinking about the future of their home.
Building Barns Out of Coal Tipples
In the story above, laid off miner Guy Mitchell talks about his brother who opened a motorcycle shop to transition out of the mines. Well, we tracked him down. Bobby Mitchell is the owner of JC Motorsports in Ramage, Boone County. Here’s how he describes the atmosphere of uncertainty in the coal fields these days.
The uncertainty drove Mitchell to go into business for himself. He was at home recovering from an injury on sick leave. Everyone was talking about the layoffs and how the industry was struggling. He knew the mines were getting ready to shut down, and so he saw his chance to try and make it in another line of work. After a year in business, JC Motorsports is succeeding.
Mitchell is like thousands of miners in the region who are trying to figure out how to make a living doing something new. One hundred and thirty of them gathered with their families for an emergency meeting at Chief Logan State Park in the fall of 2014, after being laid off from Patriot Coal.
The state’s workforce development program gave each miner a booklet called Surviving a Layoff. Inside was advice on how to write a resume and give a good interview. But something else caught our attention. Take a listen to this story. You’ll hear their voices, along with Shane Lucas, a strip miner in Eastern Kentucky who is straddling the threshold between an ailing traditional industry and a new economy.
After losing his coal job, Shane Lucas started Lucas Farm at his home near Whitesville to grow and sell fruits and vegetables in his community. And though it hasn’t been easy, he found he could survive on the profits, especially since his wife works too. When he was eventually offered his job back at the mine, he said yes, but he’s got a five year plan to transition into farming full time. Shane’s story exemplifies the way in which this moment in the coal fields feels like both a difficult challenge, and an opportunity to change and grow.
The Day of Waiting Is Over
When we sat down with Sheila Combs to talk about “What’s Next” for West Virginia, we knew immediately that we had found a powerful voice for community improvement and change. Sheila is president of the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial Group in Whitesville, WV. They have been doing some amazing work in their town to plant hope where tragedy fell in 2010, when 29 men were killed by an explosion that ripped through a nearby mine. In this short video, Sheila expresses an idea that “What’s Next, West Virginia?” has heard from West Virginians all over the state in the past year: “It is up to us to build the economic change we want to see.”
All over West Virginia, people are coming together to talk about what can be done to improve their local economy, and how they can be a part of the change. Here are a few more of their voices, recorded at the “What’s Next, West Virginia?” regional workshop in Charleston in fall of 2014.
You, too, can be a part of this growing movement to shape and influence the direction of West Virginia’s economy. Sign up today to bring “What’s Next” to your area.
Find more stories in this series! wvpublic.org/programs/whats-next-wv