The decline of McDowell County and the future of coal
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 23:02
McDowell County has a rich history of coal mining. The southernmost county in West Virginia paints the picture of coal’s impact upon the state. In the early 1950s ,the county had a population of more than 100,000 and was the largest coal producer in the world.
During the subsequent decades, as coal reserves dried up, many people lost their jobs. People began to move out of communities, and local businesses shut down.
All that remains of the once-booming coal towns of Welch and Gary are vacant buildings with "for sale" signs in the windows and a former First National Bank building for lease. Shops are filled with old equipment, dusty and discolored from years of abandonment, yet the towns still have a humble beauty to them – a resiliency that tells you life goes on, and a community will not die that easily.
A beautiful riverfront park built several years ago sits beside a colorful mural sprawling all four floors of a building in downtown Welch. The same buildings that once showcased Welch as a prosperous town still stand proudly.
While walking through downtown Welch or driving through Gary, it is difficult not to think about the past. The mark of a hard but decent living is seen in the company houses built by coal companies that once flourished. Some houses in the communities have stood the test of time better than others. Others have been completely renovated – company houses are now family homes. An old drive-in movie theater sits just outside Welch. Vacant buildings and shuttered businesses cannot help but remind one of a once busy downtown, filled with cars and packed housing.
Alas, it is not the past. It is 2013, and the population of McDowell County is down to 22,000. The county now ranks No.10 among the 30 coal counties in West Virginia. The poverty rate is more than 33 percent. A majority of citizens receive some government support, with 44 percent of the total personal income coming from transfer payments in 2011. One of the only strong growth industries recently has been prisons.
The county suffers from drug-related deaths at a rate nearly four times the state average. Recently, it was reported by Kids Count that McDowell County had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the state by far.
The outlook is depressing, and the only thing holding McDowell County together appears to be its metallurgical coal – coal in high demand because of its use in melting steel.
Mining has lifted many West Virginian families out of poverty, giving them good pay for a very tough job. It has allowed miners to risk their lives so their children may go to college or live a life their parents were unable to. The stories and successes of mining are seen all around West Virginia each day, and it has had an immeasurable impact on the economic growth of West Virginia.
However, the nature of extractive resources such as coal is that they will eventually run out. There is a finite amount of coal in the ground, and whether using conservative or liberal estimates for the life of the state’s coal reserves, West Virginia has serious questions to answer in the near future.
This is the ugly side of coal. It is easy for one to laud its successes, speaking on the tremendous income it has brought to the state. It is much harder to look down the road and see what overdependence on a natural resource will do. The time will come when West Virginia has no choice but to move beyond coal after its long, storied history in the state.
Recently, this discussion has been brought up against charges of "anti-coal" and "job-killing" rhetoric.
Senator Robert C. Byrd, a man who served the state of West Virginia for almost his entire adult life, warned of this rigid mindset, saying, "Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it."
In response, the coal industry acknowledged some of his points but remained steadfast, citing how critical it is to the nation’s energy needs and our state’s economy.
This is a fair point. Regardless of environmental concerns, coal is necessary. Currently, renewable resources cannot compete directly with coal, but the economic argument does not require competition yet. It does, however, require that we take an approach to the future so that our economy does not become crippled once coal has run its course.
The coal industry should not be expected to take this approach. It is their job to provide power and run a profitable business for as long as possible. Their obligations are to the business and their shareholders – not the citizens of the state. This is precisely why state officials need to think differently.
In the 1980s, the economic thought on extractive resources began to change. It was hypothesized that countries and regions rich in natural resources experienced more tepid growth than less resource-rich regions. This is now referred to as a resource curse – an apparent paradox that despite having the natural tools for economic growth, one experiences less growth. This usually results from a lack of diversification in economies.
In order to combat the problem of declining resources, western states such as Wyoming and Montana have created a "rainy day" fund from coal severance tax dollars to be used for economic development projects one day.
The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy concluded the creation of an "Economic Diversification Trust Fund" could create $2 billion in cumulative funding by 2035. This could place many options on the table for West Virginia and ensure that coal does not solely benefit the state for as long as it remains in high production.
On the road leaving Keystone, W.Va., right before Northfork, a sign reads, "We love where we live." Coal strikes at the very fiber of being and living for many people in southern West Virginia. It is not just a black rock. It’s a way of life. It has long been carried out of our mountains and valleys by train cars to power up a nation.
Once it is exhausted, people are left with tough decisions. Many have left. Some have turned to whatever makes their lives just a little better, holding on to what they own and love; others have turned to drugs. But many people have remained hopeful in McDowell County, despite having the odds stacked against them.
The debate is now about more than who is for or against coal. The people who frame the debate in this manner do a great disservice to communities who have relied on mining to bring them to their greatest heights.
These people stand in the way of economic progress in the state, and their shortsightedness has left McDowell County in its current position.
All of West Virginia must learn the lessons of McDowell County. This discussion will not be easy, but we can make the easy decision to be proactive now, or we can be reactive later. It is not too late yet. I, like the good people of McDowell County, remain hopeful for our future.