West Virginia coal. Walk into a crowded room, say those three words, and you will open up the floor to a slate of discussions that can eventually be summarized in one of two ways: for it, or against it. For we humans seem to possess an innate desire to make every choice a binary one.
Having grown up in the heart of southern West Virginia’s coal fields in the 1960s, I am fully aware of the benefits that accrued to my family, and countless other families, because of a booming coal-based economy. I am also fully aware of the downsides that go hand-in-hand with any extraction-based economy. So, we must wade into the gray and sort it out.
Neither of my parents were coal miners, and the nearest family connection to the fossil fuel industry that I can verify is my grandfather on my dad’s side—he and his brothers, my dad’s uncles, operated a pipeline contracting business in the oil and gas fields of central WV in the 30s and 40s. According to my uncle, it was boom and bust...just like all extraction-related endeavors are, and ended largely on bust for my grandfather. One of the brothers managed to stay in oil and gas and at least made enough money to assist my dad with his college expenses that were above and beyond what the GI bill would cover.
My dad chose a different path—mainly at the insistence of a Mr. Currey--my dad's high school drama teacher in Clendenin, WV. Dad graduated high school and joined the military, accessed the GI bill, went to WVU, then onto the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery become a dentist. He eventually bought the practice of a retiring dentist and settled in Logan, WV. I was born there in 1960 and graduated from Logan High School.
From my earliest memories, life in Logan was good. We lived in a modest home at the end of a dead-end street until I was twelve, then moved a few miles up the river into a bigger house, as my mom wanted a place that could accommodate visits from my siblings and their college friends.
During my youth-teenage years, my dad’s dental practice was strong and steady. Looking back I can use the growth and decline of his practice as a barometer for the strength of the coal-based economy. When I was young, he had a three-chair practice. When I was around 10-11, he added a fourth chair and hired an associate. Later he bought the office space next door and added several more chairs, ultimately arriving at eight chairs. During my college years, the practice declined in terms of patient numbers, and at the time of his death in 1986, the office seemed a shell of its former self. People don’t like to go to the dentist when things are good and they have dental insurance, but go they do. When times are leaner, and when dental insurance is no longer something much of the workforce has, trips to the dentist get put on the back burner until an emergency situation arises.
I love Logan, WV, though I have not lived there since 1987. While Morgantown, WV is where I live, when asked I always say I’m from Logan, WV, but call Morgantown my home these days. What do I love so much about Logan? The people, the history, the lush forests where I spent so many of my waking hours roaming the hills.
The Logan of my youth was a place where mom and pop businesses provided families a good middle-class living. I was recently looking at a 1960s-something yearbook from my grade school, Justice Grade School, and the sponsor page had 36 ads for small, mom and pop, local businesses...most of which do not exist today. I still have clothes and items I bought at Watson’s department store in downtown, from Weiner’s Army Navy store, from Bryant’s Watch Repair, from K-City (a store on the fringes of town and that seemed to have a perpetual flood sale in progress).
All of those businesses were propped up by a strong coal economy. My childhood was propped up by a strong coal economy. Over my life time, however, a mix of mechanization, the playing out of thick, lucrative, easy to mine seams, and world energy economics have resulted in the steady decline in the number of jobs in the coal industry in West Virginia. At the end of the day, coal is a finite resource, and while we are not “out of coal” at this point, the easy pickings have been picked, and coal’s days are numbered. Even as we enter this final phase of coal, there are jobs to be had, but never again will we see the booming, coal-based economy that pervaded West Virginia in the past decades. It is the same with any finite resource—coal is no different.
While the Logan of today is a far different place physically than the Logan of my youth, there is a flurry of activity centered on the redevelopment of several key buildings in the downtown..McCoy Station, Stark Tower, whatever it is Pan is doing at the old Logan Banner building complex, Coalfield Development's plans for the Robertson Building. These folks, plus the many business owners who have stayed the course, are working on a post-coal vision for Logan, and it is an exciting time.
In 2016, the world’s news outlets were focused on southern West Virginia and Donald Trump’s stumping promise to bring back the coal industry—a blatant pipedream if there ever was one. Reporter after reporter interviewed people on the streets of Logan and other southern West Virginia towns, asking what the next President could do to help the area. “Bring back the coal jobs” was the general response. A less than well thought out statement by Hilary Clinton told people of southern West Virginia that “we are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies miners out of work” added fuel to the fire.
During all of these made-for-television moments, I had two recurring thoughts—1) what if the news focused on young people’s ideas for the future; and 2) what if the news media could interview coal itself. What would those two stakeholders have to say?
The booming coal economy that so many interviewees referenced is a complete unknown to the youth of today. They see crumbling infrastructure, hear stories of how things used to be, about entire communities that used to stand in the now kudzu-covered hollows, about two or three movie theaters that used to be in town, about all the mom and pop stores that used to be in the vacant lots down town, about the vibrant youth camp scenes when the pool was clean and the camp cabins full of campers. Those days were on their way out as I matured into a teenager.
Is it great to recall them? Hell, yes! Is it realistic to think that those coal-infused scenes are going to make a return because some political hack says they are going to? Hell, no. It is downright irresponsible to promote that notion. The current state of coal is no one person’s fault, no one President’s policies, no fickle hand at work. It is simply an era whose time has come and gone. We could just as easily be talking cod fishing, here.
What if coal were interviewed? I think coal would say something along these lines, “You know, we had a good run. As with anything, there are upsides and downsides. I don’t think you humans, at least in West Virginia, played the hand very well—treating me like I was going to last forever—never planning for the future—letting politicians keep focused on the short-term, blaming God for acts of man. You let the WV Coal Association complain about the inequities of federal subsidies to the renewable energy sector, yet you don’t hold them accountable for the environmental and public health subsides they can never fully rectify. You allow the argument to become personal...against coal miners/against environmentalists, when all the while your common condition is declining....faster for some than for others. You had best move on.”
Humans are pretty smart and creative—not that those traits are always called upon for benefit of the common good.
I think we can figure out a better path forward than “coal or bust.” It is required of us.