Coal Exports Increase While Coalfield Communities Still Face Crisis

 

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Clintwood High School, Clintwood, VA | Photo: Nick Mullins

I just read an article in the Williamson Daily News citing that increased coal exports have increased coal production in the area. I’m sure there are many people in the coalfields rejoicing at this news, but before folks begin to celebrate, it’s important to think about what it really means.

The mine where I worked produced high-grade metallurgical coal used to produce steel. It was mined near Clintwood, Virginia in Dickenson County, trucked to the preparation plant in Coeburn, Virginia then loaded onto Norfolk Southern trains bound for coal export terminals on the coast. Most often our coal went to the Dominion Terminal in Newport News owned by Alpha Natural Resources. From there, it went to the world market.

In 2007-08, we were told that most of the coal was going to Europe where peak market prices reached $350 per ton. This is quite substantial seeing as our mine alone was producing an average of 1.7 million tons of coal annually with a workforce of only around 300 miners. Then came the market bust.

The company began issuing memos explaining that most of the world’s steel blast furnaces were ceasing production. Not long after, a helicopter full of investors from India landed at our mine to receive a tour. We were later informed that thanks to natural disasters in Australia, and Alpha’s top-notch global coal sales team, our mine would not be idled.

At the time I didn’t think too much about it. I was happy that Alpha was able to sell coal and I was able to maintain a high paying job in an area decimated by mono-economic poverty. Years later I see things much differently.

Out of curiosity, I went to went to the US Energy Information Administration and began digging around to uncover the total worth of coal produced by the mine were I worked, Paramont’s Deep Mine #26. First I determined that the mine produced 17,595,507 tons of coal from 2002 to 2016. I then took the average annual export price for met coal over the same 14 year period and came up with an average price of $118.47 per ton. Paramont’s Deep Mine 26 produced a conservative $2 billion dollars’ worth of coal. If this one mine produced this much wealth in coal, one could not fathom what has been extracted from our county by multiple mines over the course of nearly a century.

The coal we were producing wasn’t helping our county, our nation, and certainly not the working class. It was going to foreign countries whose corporations were benefitting from the coal we sacrificed our health to extract. In the case of countries like India and China, US met coal was/is being used to produce steel with fewer environmental regulations and labor rights for the mill worker. The cheaper steel they produce as a result is then used to manufacture goods which end up in the US and sold back to us at big box stores for profits that keep the Walton’s in the top 1 %. Some steel does come back to the US to supply manufacturers here. Still, it’s not much help for the working classes. Many manufacturers have switched to temp-to-hire agencies that pay workers less than a living wage with mandatory overtime and few if any healthcare benefits.

Naturally, all the $2 billion dollars worth of coal produced by Deep Mine 26 did not end up in the pockets of Paramont Coal Corporation, LLC a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. The $2 billion was distributed along the trade chain, soaked up by company owners and investors starting with Alpha and continuing to the transportation companies, the steel producers, the product manufacturers, the retailers, construction companies, and anyone else who used the steel our coal produced.

But this is where it really gets annoying. During Deep Mine 26’s period of operation, the Dickenson County School System needed to replace its 50-year-old high schools and some of its 30-year-old elementary schools. When the new centralized Ridgeview High School was constructed in 2014-15, it came at a cost of roughly $110 million dollars, ninety-five percent of which was being funded by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Since that time the county has had to cut budgets and staff to survive. Just this past weekend, I heard first hand from teachers who were sourcing external funds for basic class supplies on their own.

These issues bring to light many questions. How much has the coal in Dickenson County been worth and why haven’t the companies who own it and produce it paid their fair share of taxes on it? Who are the local politicians allowing this to continue year after year, decade after decade? How did outside companies come to own all our mineral rights in the first place? Why didn’t our local politicians stand up against the unethical means by which they were purchased? Why haven’t there been investigations and lawsuits?

Why do we still remain so poor despite the billions of dollars of natural resource wealth that has left our county?

These are the problems that communities suffer when local, state, and federal politicians allow the exploitation of resources. Year after year we contend with underfunded public schools, public services, and failing infrastructure—and let’s not forget an abysmal profit-driven healthcare system. We fight just to get black lung benefits or workman’s compensation when we are injured. We have given so much that the social fabric of our communities has become threadbare. The hopelessness of our youth to find meaningful employment in or outside the region leads many to become dependent upon government assistance or worse, to find darker paths towards drug abuse. And it is not our fault. This is the absolute meaning of injustice, and it came to us by the greed of outside investors and the corruption of local elites.

Our county, our region—indeed our entire nation—suffers when our coal ends up in foreign countries to power their industries. We need to educate ourselves about our local politicians and justice system, we need to demand answers.

 

2 thoughts on “Coal Exports Increase While Coalfield Communities Still Face Crisis

  1. I’m from Williamson, worked in the mining industry in the 70’s. The one word you used explains much of the problem and what the solution needs to be- mom-economic. Applalachia is a one cash crop economy, and unless diversification occurs, nothing else will matter. You can builld alll the high schools you want , but if htere are no real and diverse job opportunities, graduates will continue to leave. Ileft in 1977, returned in 2001 to lecture at Pikeville College of Osteopathic Medicine and passed through Williamson. The canges were extremely depressing. i stopped in a Big Lots stoe and of about 5o people in the store, 90% were obese, children included. I drove by my old high school (now a middle school) when it was letting out and the obesity I witnessed was just as bad. The incidence of diabetes and hypertension in grade school chidren continues to climb. South Williamson, where I grew up and had been a nice middle class neighborhood, was depressing, with manu of the homes now turned into offices, with billboards mounted on the roofs offering legal assistance for workman’s comp claims. People told me it wasn’t safe to walk around the town after dark because of the drug epidemic and possibility of being mugged.
    You can google War on Poverty Appalachia NY Times and see what’s been accomplished. To quote from one of the articles,
    “McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.
    Much of McDowell County looks like a rural Detroit, with broken windows on shuttered businesses and homes crumbling from neglect. In many places, little seems to have been built or maintained in decades.”
    To change Appallachia and establish a diversified economy requires not only money, but the political will to do so. Looking at what was done in Europe loses some relevance. Trying to make a comparison just because i both cases there are dying industries does not take into account the historical, cultural and geography (the “Appalachian Ghetto” created by years of isolation due to the mountains). Better to look at what China has accomplished in creating industries in some of its outlying areas.
    To just keep pouring money into a “failed state” is just to propagate the status quo.

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    • There are many hurdles to consider when it comes to bringing a just economic transition to Appalachia. You are absolutely right that addressing he mono-economy is a dire necessity, but to do that we need an educated voter base full of critical thinkers to keep corrupt politicians from maintaining it. I believe the first step towards a just transition would be to begin taxing the absentee landowners their fair share. With those revenues, better education can be given to start a generational change. Better programs can be offered in terms of healing the social issues generated by intense poverty. Those create jobs, as well as could local land remediation, agricultural projects and so on. If companies are increasingly taxed on property, they may be less interested in holding onto the land as well.

      There is no silver bullet. In many cases, there are other problems that run much deeper within the area than the socioeconomic and sociopolitical. We have a long way to go.

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