Coal no longer fu­els Amer­ica, but the legacy – and the myth – re­main

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Karen Heller

MADI­SON, W.VA.» Boone County claims to be the birth­place of Amer­ica’s coal in­dus­try, the rich and abun­dant black rock dis­cov­ered in these ver­dant hills al­most three cen­turies ago. Coal gives name to nearly every­thing in these parts — the Big and Lit­tle Coal Rivers, the weekly Coal Val­ley News, the won­drous Bi­tu­mi­nous Coal Her­itage Foun­da­tion Mu­seum and the West Vir­ginia Coal Fes­ti­val, cel­e­brat­ing, as we ar­rive in town, its 24th year.

The fes­ti­val is more state fair than true cel­e­bra­tion of coal. There’s a carnival, a tal­ent com­pe­ti­tion, seven beauty queens (from Lit­tle Miss Coal Fes­ti­val to For­ever West Vir­ginia Coal Queen).

Late in the af­ter­noon of the sec­ond day, high on a hill graced with the statue of a miner, there’s a small me­mo­rial ser­vice for the West Vir­ginia men who died on the job in the pre­vi­ous year. The most re­cent was 32-year-old Rod­ney Os­bourne, pinned by min­ing equip­ment on June 14. The to­tal deaths are five, fewer than the num­ber of Miss Coal Festivals who wilt in the heat on the steps of the neo­clas­si­cal court­house, draped in char­coal-black sashes. No coal ex­ec­u­tives bother to show up, nor any reps from the once-ro­bust union.

Coal min­ing, cel­e­brated with rhine­stones and pageantry, is an en­dur­ing legacy rather than a thriv­ing en­ter­prise. Which is coal coun­try’s prob­lem, and the chal­lenge for its boost­ers. We’re stuck on the idea of coal, its po­tent his­tory and Walker Evans im­agery, although much of the world has moved on. But not Boone County. Not yet. “We’re keep­ing our her­itage alive. We don’t want it to be a dy­ing in­dus­try,” says Delores W. Cook, tit­u­larly the fes­ti­val’s vice pres­i­dent, trea­surer and as­sis­tant di­rec­tor but in fact its true sovereign. “This has been a way of life for peo­ple in West Vir­ginia, keep­ing the lights on for all of the United States, for many, many years.”

Cook ad­justs her meringue of hair. She’s a coal miner’s daugh­ter, a dis­tinc­tion res­i­dents de­clare in in­tro­duc­tions, akin to be­ing the child of a veteran with a proud chest of medals.

Her late hus­band, Den­nis “De” Cook, worked coal “42 and a half years,” she says, mak­ing sure ev­ery last month is hon­ored.

Boone’s for­tunes rose and sub­se­quently plum­meted along with the in­dus­try. But coal’s grip holds hard, a source of rev­enue the state has been slow to re­place. Fewer than 700 county res­i­dents worked the mines last year. The school dis­trict is Boone’s largest em­ployer, but it was forced to lay off 150 work­ers when in­come from the sev­er­ance tax on coal ex­trac­tion last year dropped to a fifth of what it was less than a decade ago.

Decades past its hey­day, and de­spite the avail­abil­ity of cleaner and more widely used en­ergy re­sources, coal is en­joy­ing its mo­ment in pol­i­tics, cul­ture and the en­vi­ron­men­tal de­bate. It has as­sumed a promi­nence in our na­tional conversation far greater than its cur­rent con­sump­tion: 15 per­cent of Amer­ica’s en­ergy re­sources, pro­duc­ing about a third of all elec­tric­ity. It’s as though we’d re­vived a dis­cus­sion about lo­co­mo­tives.

Coal dom­i­nated the en­ergy de­bate dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, em­braced by Don­ald Trump and dis­missed as ob­so­lete by Hil­lary Clin­ton. “We’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fos­sil fu­els,” said the Demo­cratic can­di­date, promptly ren­der­ing her a pariah here.

Coal is an idea some Amer­i­cans can’t quit, although it em­ployed fewer than 66,000 min­ers in 2014. Kohl’s de­part­ment store has more than twice as many work­ers.

But re­tail doesn’t play as pow­er­fully in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion, launch­ing sto­ries, in­spir­ing music, forg­ing iden­tity. “En­tire com­mu­ni­ties were formed to mine” coal, says Bar­bara Freese, au­thor of “Coal: A Hu­man His­tory.” “Coal cre­ated its own ge­o­graph­i­cal area and cul­ture.”

The moun­tain­ous sweep of Ap­palachia seized the spot­light, mined for gold by jour-

nal­ists who had mis­cal­cu­lated Trump’s as­cen­dancy and the re­gion’s piv­otal role in his elec­tion. J.D. Vance’s mem­oir “Hill­billy El­egy,” viewed as a de­coder of Ap­palachian cul­ture, has spent nearly a year crown­ing the best­seller list.

“I hap­pen to love the coal min­ers,” Trump said in an­nounc­ing U.S. with­drawal from the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord. Trump wel­comed coal min­ers and ex­ec­u­tives to the White House for a photo op, the first in ages, and de­clared “an end to the war on coal” — a con­flict minted by an in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tion — at a time when even the Ken­tucky Coal Mu­seum was switch­ing to so­lar en­ergy.

“The trick is not to ro­man­ti­cize the life”

South­ern West Vir­ginia is a place of both star­tling beauty and hard­ship, a jux­ta­po­si­tion that be­came all the more pro­nounced when com­pa­nies started blowing off moun­tain­tops to har­vest fuel us­ing fewer men, wreck­ing the state’s grand scenery in the quest for coal.

“We’re learn­ing we can’t have all our eggs in one bas­ket. We need to grow and di­ver­sify,” says state Sen. Ron Stollings at the fes­ti­val open­ing, read­ing from Demo­cratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III’s ad­dress.

But in this re­gion, coal is a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues to haunt.

“It’s not only an in­dus­try that’s lost, but a way of life, one filled with ter­ri­ble hard­ships,” says com­poser Ju­lia Wolfe, whose Pulitzer Prize-win­ning or­a­to­rio, “An­thracite Fields,” com­mem­o­rates Penn­syl­va­nia’s min­ers. “The trick is not to ro­man­ti­cize the life. There are very beau­ti­ful things about the com­mu­nity’s de­pen­dence on each other, but there’s also ter­ri­ble abuse and neg­li­gence.”

The in­dus­try was long marked by ex­ces­sive volatil­ity: all-in dur­ing boom times, then ne­glect, com­pa­nies de­camp­ing un­der the cloak of bank­ruptcy, threat­en­ing pen­sions, wreck­ing the se­cu­rity of proud men. Jobs evap­o­rated. But the moun­tains re­mained.

“There’s still a lot of coal in these hills,” says Cook, a for­mer state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and the stew­ard of per­pet­ual op­ti­mism. The fuel never dried up, only its vi­a­bil­ity, which pro­foundly af­fected the com­mu­nity.

The com­pa­nies of­ten cared less about the men than the com­mod­ity, a story the mu­seum sub­tly re­veals through its ar­ti­facts, with­out ran­cor or ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing.

Min­ers were re­quired to pur­chase work tools from com­pany stores. Se­cu­rity was an af­ter­thought. “We didn’t have re­flec­tive gear when I worked in the mines,” says for­mer miner (fourth gen­er­a­tion) Tim Spratt, vis­it­ing the mu­seum with his grand­son, ges­tur­ing to­ward a vit­rine. “That was only for su­per­vi­sors.” Spratt, who sang at the me­mo­rial ser­vice, once worked “low coal” in a hole less than three feet high. “Which is a hard job for a fat man,” he says.

“I liked the ca­ma­raderie with my fel­low min­ers,” adds res­i­dent Rickey Woodrum, who spent a decade un­der­ground be­fore turn­ing to op­er­at­ing au­to­body shops. “I liked the money. It was tough. It will make you tough. But it put your kids through col­lege.”

So they wouldn’t ever have to work the mines.

Min­ing is, was, the rare job where a man — in­vari­ably, a man — could pro­vide for his fam­ily, mak­ing $80,000 or $90,000 in a good year, with just a high school de­gree, of­ten less, ris­ing up by work­ing be­low.

The in­dus­try’s de­clin­ing for­tunes con­trib­uted to the death of op­por­tu­nity for many men to be their fam­i­lies’ top wage earner, an­other conversation of our times.

“Coal’s been go­ing down­hill since World War II,” says for­mer miner Jim Chaney. “In Boone County, it used to be you mined the coal or you moved the coal.”

Now, he be­lieves, “it will come back, but never the way that it was.” It’s a coda you hear con­stantly in coal coun­try.

Vi­o­lent his­tory

West Vir­ginia, se­ced­ing from Con­fed­er­ate Vir­ginia in 1863, is the only state cre­ated by the Civil War. (Yet plenty of Con­fed­er­ate flags are on dis­play, in­clud­ing sev­eral af­fixed to a carnival stand.) In­stead of bat­tle­fields, the state pro­duced a land­scape of min­ing con­flicts and dis­as­ters: Mate­wan, the Bat­tle of Blair Moun­tain (the town is now lit­tle more than a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque), Up­per Big Branch.

The in­dus­try’s dirty, dra­matic and vi­o­lent his­tory was dom­i­nated by out­size union lead­ers and preda­tory com­pa­nies that re­moved the coal and the wealth and left be­hind towns that re­sem­ble De­pres­sion-era movie sets and be­came visual cat­nip for doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers.

Six decades ago, McDow­ell was a county of 100,000. To­day, it’s one-fifth the size, and West Vir­ginia’s poor­est county. In 2015, it gar­nered na­tional at­ten­tion for all the wrong rea­sons: as home to the na­tion’s high­est rate of opi­oid-in­duced deaths.

Trains used to pass through Boone County eight times a day, some­times more. Res­i­dents in hous­ing yards from the tracks cursed the con­stant racket, oth­ers the frus­tra­tion of driv­ing be­hind a slow coal truck on two-lane roads over the hills.

No more. Those trains and trucks are now like Christ­mas.

At 7 p.m., as the carnival lights brighten nar­row Main Street, a train plows through Madi­son, scores of cars loaded with peaks of coal. “Yoo-hoo! Hear that?” gasps Cook. “The coal train!” She al­most breaks into a jig.

Michael S. Williamson, The Washington Post

Three mas­sive gen­er­at­ing units of the Mount Storm power sta­tion in West Vir­ginia can burn more than 15,000 tons of coal per day. The 1,200-acre lake was cre­ated as a cool­ing pond for the power plant.

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