In Coal Country, What's Next for Miners?
At a state park in Logan County, West Virginia, dozens of coal miners and their families are milling around a vast meeting room. State officials called this meeting to help them figure out what to do next after the coal mine they worked in closed. Dell Maynard is one of these miners. His primary emotion right now is shock.
"I've been laid off three times in the last year," says Maynard. "I'm not kidding. And it's not because I don't try to find a job because I've found three. Oh, it's awful. I'm telling you this place is going to be a ghost town if they don't do something."
Faced with competition from natural gas and increasing federal regulations, layoffs and mine closings like this one are becoming more and more common in parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. The coal industry is facing tough times.
For others in Logan County, it’s anger—at the federal government, politicians, at the coal companies, each other.
"I think I’m more angry than anything because I don’t think this has to happen," says Steve Sigmon. "It’s hurtful. Don’t know really where to turn. I mean I’m not an old man, but I’m not a young man either. And to start focusing on another career, it’s a big adjustment in life."
Many are trying to bargain their way back to the way things used to be. If they could just get this one guy out of office, things would be great again.
"Obama has absolutely stuck a dagger in the heart of coal," says Maynard.
All over Appalachia, people are in different stages of mourning this thing that’s put dinner on the table and shaped the culture for so long. Some are even starting to talk about a transition. About Appalachia, about moving past coal.
COLLAPSE AND RENEWAL
Shane Lucas trudges through the cold mud at a small mountain farm outside of Whitesburg, Kentucky to a weathered barn on his property. It used to be a coal tipple—a structure where the coal is loaded for transport. Coal’s long decline in Appalachia really began back in the 1950s, when machines started replacing miners.
"Back in the '50s, my papaw run a coal tipple in the head of the holler up here. And they all shut down," says Lucas. "So they went up in there and tore the coal tipple down.
His wife wants him to tear it down.
"I hate to tear it down...I was thinking of building me a building, a chicken house or something out of it, just to keep it," he says.
Like his father, Lucas is building something new in the shadow of industry’s decay. And like his barn, Lucas' story is one of collapse and renewal.
For almost 20 years, he was a surface miner, running a production drill at the vast Cumberland River Coal complex near his home. He loved his job. But then two years ago, his life took a dramatic turn when he was laid off by Arch Coal. One day, they just shut the doors.
"Drawed us into the room," Lucas explains. "We all started handing out the envelopes. And you open them up and there it is. Everybody was scared to death, everybody’s saying 'What are we going to do?' Because there’s nothing out here. In debt. How are they going to pay for everything? It was really a bad moment."
But Lucas had a back-up plan. He started Lucas farm—where he grows broccoli, turnips, and apple trees. What started as a scheme to haul produce from Tennessee to pay for fishing trips has since blossomed into broccoli, turnips, and apple trees. By the time he lost his job, Lucas was making some real money selling at his roadside stand—not like in the mines, but just maybe...enough.
"Fooling with this, I’m never broke," he says. "I’ve always got a dollar in my pocket. I might not could pay bills but I’ve always got a dollar in my pocket. I could survive. You know if I get laid off, keep from having to leave this part, maybe I could grow. My wife works, so maybe we could make it instead of having to move off."
FILLING A GIANT HOLE LEFT BY COAL
"The region is in a really critical moment of economic transition. For me, it's a really pregnant moment of opportunity," says Ivy Brashear, an eastern Kentuckian who works for Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit that’s helping to chart a course for economic transition in the region.
Her group focuses on entrepreneurship, energy efficiency, forestry, and local foods. She’s part of a movement that is spreading in Appalachia, calling for more dialogue, planning, and investment by citizens, government, and NGOs to fill the giant hole created by coal’s hollowing out.
"Not that it’s easy to make that transition," says Brashear. "It’s really not. It’s long, it’s hard and it’s expensive. But there really is no other option for us if we are to survive as a region and as a people than to search for alternatives and to do something else."
For former miners like Lucas, there is a lot to work out. Growing food is an old tradition in Eastern Kentucky, but selling crops is actually pretty new. Last year, when his boss called and offered Lucas back his surface mining job, he said yes. But this time, he’s not banking on the coal mine re-opening. He’s got a plan. Over the next five years, Lucas will be turning more ground under, planting a big berry patch, and looking to source produce year-round.
Can he make a living farming full time? He’s got his doubts, but he’s willing to give it a try.
"Would my life be easier…just go back to coal mining and forget this?" he asks. "Or do I still try to juggle both and shoot for something that may not never happen and still have to go back to the coal mines? That’s what’s hard right now."
Lucas is at a threshold—with one foot in an ailing traditional industry and one in a new economy. Like many people in Appalachia, he's just trying to find his footing. He’s thinking about what to build out of the wood of an old coal tipple.