Appalachian Fall: Dispatches from Coal Country on What’s Ailing America by Jeff Young and the Ohio Valley ReSource Team

The Appalachia region of the eastern United States stretches from New York state to the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. As of 2010, more than 25 million people live in this region. The rich deposits of coal and oil was the foundation of America’s Industrial Revolution. For the past 50 years, poverty has been the main attribute of Appalachia. It also made for a toxic recipe of environmental disasters and corporate and government corruption that exists to this day.

In Jeff Young’s book, he and his team Ohio Valley Resource, explores the Appalachian culture and the many aspects of economic woes are bearing out in other parts of the United States today. “The Ohio Valley ReSource (Young is their managing editor) is a regional journalism collaborative reporting on economic and social change in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, seven public media outlets across the three states have partnered to form the ReSource in order to strengthen news coverage of the area’s most important issues. As the journalism industry, primarily print media, has been in rapid decline, ReSource fills a critical role in reporting aspects of Appalachia, long discarded by the national news media.”

Source: https://ohiovalleyresource.org/

Canary in a Coal Mine

The premise of Appalachian Fall is a microcosm of the problems facing the entire United States; the underlying poverty was evident for several decades going back to the 1960s, the opioid crisis, and environmental pollution are now widespread in our country. Government and corporate corruption has been in abundance. During the past 40 years, the rich have gotten richer, and the poor left behind to fend for themselves. Forgotten by the common man.

In 2016, the downward spiral of the coal industry continued at a frenetic pace. Candidate Donald J. Trump seized upon the fear and restlessness of those in West Virginia, the heart of coal country. Trump touted the return of coal is a primary source of energy, offering followers a promise of folly, a return of the good ol’ days.. From a 2016 Vanity Fair article by John Saward: “One afternoon at the Bluebird store in Clarksburg (W.VA)—part diner, grocery store, and social club—I meet Shane Shreves, a fourth-generation union coal miner. He wants Trump to be president. In 2015, he says, he lost 262 miners to layoffs at his mine alone, Robinson Run No. 95. “Coal has carried West Virginia on its back for 200 years,” he tells me. “It’s built schools. Communities. It’s not anger [we feel here], really, it’s just very frustrating.” Eric Leaseburg, the owner of the store, sits down at a big round table with us. He has a full plate of food in front of him. Shreves finishes a thought, and then Leaseburg says, as he loads up his fork, “I don’t even know if [West Virginians] want to see Trump president, but they’re just that pissed off.”

Source: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/02/donald-trump-supporters-west-virginia

In 2020, Trump remains highly popular in the state of West Virginia, many are convinced he is the ‘outside-the-beltway businessman, who gets things done’, and unable to detach from this hardened stance. Source: https://projects.economist.com/us-2020-forecast/president/west-virginia

The Future for Appalachia

American Electric Power (AEP) provides energy services to Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. AEP has been actively transitioning from fossil fuel sources to wind, solar and other sustainable resources. There’s been a major shift transitioning from coal to alternative forms of energy.

Source: https://www.aep.com/about/facts

Energy companies like AEP see the writing on the wall. In 2020, Exxon/Mobile was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2020, which had been part of the Dow since 1928.

It is a fool’s errand to believe there is future in fossil fuels, and any corporation or politician who says otherwise, is leading you down a primrose lane. The coal industry is dead – and transition to other methods of greenhouse sustainable energy (Wind, Solar) is what is needed for the Appalachia commerce-driven engine, and a primary path forward for this region of America.

Rebecca Shelton is the Coordinator of Policy and Organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg Kentucky. In her article, she writes:

“For years, Kentuckians have advocated for federal investment to diversify and rebuild the economy and address the legacy costs of coal mining. We’ve advocated for investment to clean up abandoned mine lands and revitalize public water infrastructure — investment that can create immediate jobs in spite of an economic recession. This pandemic has also made clear that investment in broadband is critical and that expanded unemployment benefits have value. We wonder what $600 a week in jobless benefits could have meant to the thousands of coal miners affected by coal company lay-offs and bankruptcies. Increased unemployment helps families meet their basic needs and benefits the economy.

We are one among many calling for investment in coal communities. Recently, these issues and more have been lifted up in the National Economic Transition and Reimagine Appalachia platforms and through a letter written to congressional leadership and signed by over 100 organizations. Colorado recently completed a draft plan to support coal industry workers and communities – isn’t it time for Kentucky to write ours?

We need federal aid today to keep our communities safe, to meet basic needs, and to keep our government budgets afloat, but we also need Congressional action to build healthier communities and more resilient economies tomorrow.” Source: https://www.kentucky.com/article245200340.html

“The kind of challenges and conditions that Appalachians have been dealing with are now become the rest of the country’s,” – Jeff Young

The Ohio Valley Resource team
J. TYLER FRANKLIN PHOTO BY J. TYLER FRANKLIN
The Cost of Coal: Mountaintop-removal mines in Appalachia have demolished an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams, poisoned drinking water, and wiped whole towns from the map. -Sierra Club

Corruption: The Circle of Lies

Similar to what was described in Rachel Maddow’s book “Blowout”, Oklahoma politicians married with Oil and Gas company executives to reduce taxes for municipal funding in Oklahoma. “Billions of dollars were pocketed by the oil/gas outfits, and a pittance provided to the state of Oklahoma. The back-room, sweetheart deals for the oil/gas fat cats were well greased by the slimy Oklahoma politicians.” (See my previous book review of “Blowout” here.)

“Now that the coal industry is in decline, some companies are trying to offload their obligations to clean up the land and water they have polluted. Without our careful involvement, the financial deals hatched in bankruptcy proceedings could undo all our hard work to secure cleaner streams and forests.” -Appalachian Mountain Advocates (www.appalmad.org). As West Virginia Governor, Jim Justice sits atop a perch of corruption. In July 2020, “A federal judge has ruled a coal company owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is liable for more than 3,000 violations of federal clean water standards stemming from pollution discharged from a coal mine in southern West Virginia.”

Source: https://www.wvpublic.org/post/judge-rules-justice-controlled-coal-company-liable-pollution-violations-wva-mine#stream/0

The people of Appalachia are tired. Tired of the economic disparities and lack of available meaningful jobs to uplift from widespread poverty. Tired of the heartache of losing loved ones due to over-prescribed prescription pain meds enhancing the opioid crisis, purposefully brought on by pharmaceutical companies, while politicians looked the other way. Tired of being made a laughingstock, and constantly ignored by east and west coast media-elites, and of those in power in Washington D.C. Tired of promises made, and then broken, time and time again. Tired of polluted waters and airways, and lack of decent healthcare. It is past time for the United States to provide reparations to all of Appalachia, to a proud and hard-working people, who built this country during the Industrial Revolution.

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By Brian J. Podesta

Administrator and writer for WritingReal, a place for stories about people and places. Included are my musical projects and my book reviews.