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Looking Back And Pointing Ahead At The Future of Coal Mining in Appalachia

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Christian Wicke/ Utrecht University
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The Tetrahedron, built in 1995 in Bottrop, Germany, is a steel structure located on top of a former mine site, which is now a tourist destination. The Ruhr region, where it’s located, was once the world’s largest producer of coal. Beginning in the 1960s, coal executives and political leaders began shrinking the coal industry and rebuilding their economy to sustain the transition. The last coal mine in the Ruhr Valley closed in 2018.

People in coal country are pleading for help as the coal industry nears the end of its long decline. This week on Inside Appalachia, we explore the economic and health impacts coal has had on communities in Appalachia. We’ll talk about the past and the future of this industry through the lens of its labor history to its future amid tough talks about the world’s climate crisis. And, we’ll meet a woman who entered the male-dominated coal industry. She tells us why she stayed, despite resistance from her family.

Coal’s been in slow decline here for decades, but it’s been more noticeable in the last 10 years. That’s meant hard times for communities that have long relied on the industry for jobs and taxes. Coal mining jobs have dipped by 66 percent in West Virginia compared to their heyday 50 years ago — and experts don’t predict a comeback. But we’re not alone; other places around the world face similar dilemmas. We learn what people in West Germany did 50 years ago — when coal executives and political leaders had to make tough decisions when it came to the future of coal, and their home.

In This Episode: 

Once one of the largest employers in the Ruhr region of West Germany, the Prosper-Haniel coal mine was closed in 2018. The closing marked the end of coal mining in West Germany, which once was one of the world’s largest producers of coal.
Christian Wicke, Utrecht University
Once one of the largest employers in the Ruhr region of West Germany, the Prosper-Haniel coal mine was closed in 2018. The closing marked the end of coal mining in West Germany, which once was one of the world’s largest producers of coal.

The Mountain State isn’t the only place to reckon with the difficulty of transitioning away from a coal economy into something different.

West Germany emerged from World War II as one of the leading coal and steel producers in the world. Then, in the 1960s, oil emerged as a competitor, and the country found itself in the midst of an economic crisis. But there, the emergency prompted a strange and unusual alliance.

“The state government, the regional governments, the trade unions, and the employers, the industrialists, sat together and tried to find solutions to the problem,” said Stefan Moitra, historian at the German Mining Museum in Bochum in the Ruhr Valley — a densely populated valley in West Germany that’s home to five million people.

The front of a small mine in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, in the early 1980s.
Photographer, Frank Martin. Photo courtesy Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum
The front of a small mine in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, in the early 1980s.

Another way to examine this issue is by looking at our neighbors to the north.

In Pittsburgh, the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s prompted existing businesses to retool for a new reality. But it took decades.

Smaller companies are more adaptable, and they were a big part of Pittsburgh’s renewal. Aided by lots of government funding, as well as help from philanthropic organizations, entrepreneurs created smaller start-up industries in tech, the arts, and restoration of the city’s historic resources.

“Pittsburgh really [became] a laboratory for what and how to save the past in a way that allows it to be integrated into the future,” said Allen Dieterich-Ward, professor of history at Shippensburg University and author of “Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America.”

As in Pittsburgh and West Germany, it will probably take many decades, or even generations, for Appalachia to get through this transition to the other side — and what that other side looks like is still unknown. But what’s certain is that planning for that future will probably help the state have a better outcome.

Battle Of Blair Mountain

And we travel back in time a hundred years, to when West Virginia was home to our nation’s largest labor uprising. The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was a watershed moment when coal workers decided their rights were worth fighting — and even dying — for. The armed insurrection pitted 10,000 coal miners against 3,000 heavily armed guards and state troopers.

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Trey Kay/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts speaking at a rally in New York City in July 2021. UMWA miners protested outside of the Manhattan headquarters of BlackRock, which is listed as the largest shareholder of Warrior Met Coal. For months, the UMWA has protested Warrior Met for better wages and employee benefits.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed conflict since the Civil War. As part of the uprising, there was an armed march of miners, from Marmet to Mingo County. Us & Them host Trey Kay recently retraced the path of those miners, to learn more about what led to the conflict.

Miners Continue To Push For Black Lung Benefits

One of the big strikes that eventually led to Blair Mountain happened nine years earlier, in 1912, in Cabin Creek, West Virginia. Now, more than a century later, people in the area are still fighting for miners’ rights through a local black lung clinic, as June Leffler reports.

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Trey Kay/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting
UMWA protest in midtown New York City in July 2021.

Uncertain Future For The Union 

By the 1930s, the United Mine Workers of America had become a thriving and powerful force. It fought for better wages and working conditions, and influenced government policy, like the New Deal.

But with the decline in coal production has come a drop in membership — leaving many to wonder what’s next for the union and the miners they represent. Dave Mistich reports on how the UMWA is grappling with an uncertain future.

Women Coal Miners

As a young woman, Anita Cecil McBride followed in her father’s footsteps and became an underground coal miner. Reporter Jessica Lilly visited with McBride to talk about her journey into the “man’s world” of mining.

Kathy Mattea Named New Host Of Mountain Stage

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BRIAN BLAUSER brianphoto@yah
Larry Groce and Kathy Mattea

And we talk with two-time Grammy Award winner Kathy Mattea, who’s just been named the new host of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s popular live music show, Mountain Stage. After 38 years and more than 900 episodes, co-founder Larry Groce is handing the mic over to Mattea, a West Virginia native who’s been making country music since the early ‘80s. “I've spent my whole life being sort of a West Virginia native daughter,” Mattea told Inside Appalachia Co-host Caitlin Tan. “I moved to Nashville when I was 19, and then I wound up getting to take this ride in the music business — touring all over the country and much of the world.”

“So, I wound up talking about the place that I'm from and the place that made me. There's so much stereotypical stuff about hillbilly culture and it’s a chance to bring some of the soulfulness of that to people and break those stereotypes.”

Mattea has also spent the past 15 years talking about coal – both its environmental impacts, and also its cultural roots in Appalachia.

 

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Kathy Mattea and Billy Edd Wheeler, as heard on Mountain Stage. We also heard music by Merle Travis and geonovah.

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Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.