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Amid Coal’s Decline, What Comes Next for Appalachia

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
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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.

People in coal country are pleading for help as coal’s decline accelerates. This week on Inside Appalachia, we explore the economic and health impacts coal has had on coal communities in Appalachia. We’ll talk about the past and the future of this industry, through the lens of its labor history, to the climate crisis. And we’ll hear from members of Indigenous communities on how they feel about the future of coal.

In This Episode:

The Tetrahedron, built in 1995 in Bottrop, is a steel structure located on top of a former mine site.
Christian Wicke, Utrecht University
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The Tetrahedron, built in 1995 in Bottrop, is a steel structure located on top of a former mine site.

Coal’s been in slow decline here for decades, but really accelerated in the last 10 years. That’s meant hard times for communities that have long relied on it for jobs and taxes. There are sixty six percent fewer jobs today in West Virginia coal mining now than there were 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 fifty years ago - when coal executives and political leaders had to make tough decisions when it came to the future of coal, and their home.

What Is The Future For Appalachia’s Power Plants?

Lawmakers across our country and the world are debating the future of our energy policy. Scientists agree, to prevent the worst effects of climate change, we must significantly reduce our carbon emissions, and we have to do it quickly.

For much of the world, the answer is to phase out coal, but the issue is political and complicated. Kentucky is one of those places that’s starting to shift away from coal — in a way that West Virginia is not. Curtis Tate is a reporter here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting who covers energy and the environment and he’s been tracking this story. Inside Appalachia producer, Roxy Todd, spoke with Tate about where Kentucky and West Virginia are headed. Are we going to continue to produce electricity from coal, and for how long?

Indigenous Activists Talk About Coal And The Economy 

There’s a longstanding relationship between Appalachian coalfields and those in the Mountain West. During the anti-strip mining campaigns of the mid-2000s, concerned community members in both regions traveled to support each other’s efforts. Those connections continue today.

Reporter Katie Myers spoke with two Indigenous activists - one in Appalachia, and one in the Navajo Nation. They talked about the future of coal and the economic opportunities they want to see take root in the years ahead.

 

Lessons From West Germany

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

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.

Pittsburgh’s Transition Away From Steel

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

Cecil Roberts
Trey Kay
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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.

Also in this episode, 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.

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.

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.

Mountain Stage Host Kathy Mattea

Kathy Mattea - Guest Host
BRIAN BLAUSER brianphoto@yah
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Mountain Stage
Mountain Stage Guest Host Kathy Mattea

Two-time Grammy Award winner Kathy Mattea was named the host of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s popular live music show, Mountain Stage in 2021. “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.

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

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Inside Appalachia Co-Host/Folkways Reporter, ctan@wvpublic.org, 307-231-9865, @miss_ctan
Inside Appalachia Co-Host/Folkways Reporter, mason.j.adams@gmail.com, @MasonAtoms
Former Reporter/Producer for Inside Appalachia, @RoxyMTodd