The State of Coal Country Inside Appalachia

Feb 19, 2016

Our roots with coal run deep here in central Appalachia. But the future for the people in the Appalachian coalfields is unclear.  Although coal will likely still continue to be mined, it doesn’t seem like jobs in this industry will ever come back, not like they once were. People in the coalfields are worried. Jobs are disappearing -- and there isn’t a lot of hope right now.

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On this episode we take a look at coal communities, coal’s decline and what’s being done to help the economy.  The stories include:

  • Worlds Away, Health Disparities in the Coalfields: A man living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., will likely live 15 years longer than one 300 miles away in southern West Virginia, in a town like Gilbert, Mingo County. While some folks have to travel hours to find specialists, a group of doctors from WVU found a way to meet the need where it is. Glynis Board takes us to Gilbert.  
  • The Fight to Block The Clean Power Plan: Some politicians are fighting the Obama Administration's policies in court. West Virginia is taking the lead to fight the Clean Power Plan because, elected officials say, stopping the Plan will help the economy.
  • President Obama’s Plan to Help Coal-Dependent Communities: President Obama has pledged to help struggling coal-dependent communities. One way is through the Appalachian Regional Commission. The president’s budget for 2017 requested $120 million for the  ARC. The budget request is the largest for the agency in more than three decades. The funds include $50 million for an initiative designed to help communities suffering from the decline in coal jobs called the (POWER) Initiative which stands for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization

Work crews for the Coalfield Development Corporation earn money and learn skills like carpentry, historic restoration, solar panel installation, and agriculture.
Credit Courtesy Coalfield Development Corporation

  • Reclaim Appalachia is Creating Jobs With Federal Grant Money From the POWER Plus Plan: Brandon Dennison is the founder of the Coalfield Development Corporation, which runs “Reclaim Appalachia.” It's a program that rehabilitates abandoned buildings by using recycled materials and training workers while they continue their education. They hire the unemployed and under-employed. Last year, Brandon won a J.M. Kaplan Innovation Prize for his work. He says the program not only offers jobs, but aims to address the social and educational problems of its participants.
  • Get to know an Appalachian, thanks to the Humans of Central Appalachia Project

Wayne Lee Williams is a retired coal miner from Lashmeet, West Virginia. He says he misses the camaraderie that comes with being a coal miner.

Aaron Owens is a high school teacher in Princeton, West Virginia. Aaron says he sees how the decline in the coal industry affects his students. Still, he has hope for the future here.

  • What's it like to go underground? More coal miners are starting to find their voice and to tell their own stories. Gary Bentley spent 12 years as an underground coal miner in Kentucky before he left the industry in 2013. He started writing about his experiences recently in an effort to combat stereotypes about coal miners he sees in the media and popular culture. So he began writing a blog called  “In the Black,” for the rural news website “The Daily Yonder.” In his column, he shares stories from his career in the mines.
  • #SOUNDOFF What do you think will help the Appalachian economy? We asked our twitter followers and here are some of their ideas:

Join the conversation send us a tweet to @InAppalachia and thanks!

We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from WBUR in Boston, WFPL in Louisville and the Humans of Central Appalachia project.

Music in today’s show was also provided by Andy Agnew Jr., Ben Townsend, James Reams and the Barnstormers Jake Schepps, Clarence Greene and Larry Groce, from the new CD Live Forever.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly and Roxy Todd. Glynis Board and Jesse Wright edited our show this week.

You can e-mail us at feedback@wvpublic.org. Find us on Twitter @InAppalachia or @JessicaYLilly.