The Only Way Out for Appalachia’s Coalfields

Georges Fork

Looking out from Cooks Fork near Clintwood, Virginia | Nick Mullins

The boom and bust cycles of coal markets have always worked to the advantage of coal companies while leaving Appalachian communities to suffer.  In many of Central Appalachia’s coal-producing counties, over 90% of the mineral rights are owned by absentee owners who manipulate local and state governments to keep property taxes low on their holdings. When markets are up, coal companies open mines and extract coal as hard and fast as possible. When the markets are down, they idle or close their mines, file bankruptcy to get out of mine reclamation costs and/or debts to their employees, and rename their corporations to prepare for the next spike in coal prices.
Meanwhile, high unemployment rates contribute to deepening poverty in mountain communities with all its many symptoms: substandard housing, depression and other mental health issues, substance abuse. Local governments face budget crisis after budget crisis as coal severance taxes dwindle and companies keep the pressure on to maintain low property taxes. Fire departments, rescue squads, and law enforcement agencies all must do more with less. Budget shortfalls in public education impact the social mobility of the area’s youth, and local infrastructure including water distribution, transportation, and waste disposal continue to deteriorate.

More problems. More misery. Fewer resources.

When the coal companies re-open their mines, they do so in communities desperate for jobs, desperate for economic relief, and they have no shame in taking full advantage of the situations they have left behind. The pattern has never changedand will never change so long as absentee ownership of land and mineral rights continues in the Appalachian mountains.

The best and only option to end this struggle would be to nationalize the remaining coal reserves in Appalachia, along with all of the present mining operations.  Not only will this ensure the proper oversight of coal mining, making the process safer for miners and the communities where mining occurs, but by nationalizing the coal reserves we will be ensuring our national security for generations to come. Every ton of high-grade Appalachian coal that is mined, sold, and shipped overseas by private corporations, is another ton of coal we will no longer have if our nation needs it, be it to produce steel or generate energy during a national crisis.

Revenues generated from government produced coal sales would be more equitably distributed to coal miners in the form of government wages and benefits. Additional revenues could be placed into funds to buffer job loss during market downturns by shifting miners from mining to reclamation and remediation work, or public projects to repair dilapidated public infrastructure.

I’m sure many will argue that such an undertaking would cost taxpayers too much money, but in truth, Appalachia’s coal reserves are not as vast as they once were. They are certainly not as vast as what our nation currently owns beneath federal lands in the west. A carbon fee and dividend could offset a tremendous amount of the cost, and let’s not forget the $700 billion dollar bailout of 2008. No, it’s not impossible, but it will take overcoming the political corruption that has maintained the coal industry’s power over Appalachia for 120 years.

It’s either this, or we wait for the last lump of coal to be mined, then hope there will be something left behind for our children to rebuild.

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