Coal transition and new economic development in Appalachia

February 25, 2016

Coal’s contribution to Appalachian economies is already a shadow of what it once was; as the best seams are exhausted and coal gets more expensive to mine, its future in the region has never looked bleaker.

West Virginia is the only state in the country where more than half of adults are not working, according to the Census Bureau. It is tied with Kentucky for the highest percentage of residents collecting disability payments from Social Security, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the death rate among working-age adults is highest in the nation, 55 percent higher the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  As jobs disappeared from coal country people fled, leaving behind abandoned buildings and empty lots.

Brandon Dennison devised a business plan in graduate school that uses some of these disadvantages to create jobs.  His creation, Coalfield Development Corp., hires graduates of high school vocational programs to restore, repurpose or tear down old buildings, use old building materials to make furniture, or build new homes on reclaimed coalfield land.  Employees also are also required to take six hours of community college courses a week and three hours of life skills classes that help them with things like money management and healthy eating.

The program is getting such a good response that Dennison plans to expand early next year to start similar businesses focused on agriculture, tourism and retail.  “We’re trying to change mindsets in coal country, from ‘the world is out to get me’ to ‘the world is full of opportunity,'” he says. “A huge focus of the training we do is around entrepreneurship and how to start a business.”

The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) offers loans and technical assistance to small businesses and nonprofits; the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks runs two business incubators where new enterprises can get counseling, office, and light-manufacturing space, as well as share resources and procurement.

A number of organizations are working to help Appalachia catch up to the rest of the country in access to broadband Internet. The Southern Grassroots Economy Project offers training in setting up cooperatively owned enterprises, and the Central Appalachian Network offers grants to businesses producing local food.

One of the biggest tragedies of the coal era is that, for all of the sacrifices of Appalachian residents—blasted mountains, polluted water and air, high rates of disease and birth defects, the deaths of more than 100,000 miners—very little of the wealth created by the industry has stuck around. Coal-producing counties are among the poorest in the nation.

That’s why a number of Appalachian groups are pushing to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. They say Appalachian states can make better use of the money coal produces as it declines; groups in Kentucky and West Virginia are pushing to divert a portion of coal severance taxes to permanent funds, similar to those set up in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming.

The idea is to use coal money, while it’s still around, to build more sustainable sources of wealth (in the form of job training programs, infrastructure, and more). In West Virginia, they also hope to harness the new boom in town, natural gas, in the same way. If the industry can’t be kept out, the reasoning goes, the states should find ways to turn nonrenewable resources into assets that last.

Another lesson learned: After years of shipping irreplaceable natural wealth out of the region, a number of groups are looking for ways to turn conservation into an economically viable option.

Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, and other groups across the region are fighting to protect their mountains from mountaintop removal—a coal-mining practice that destroys entire mountains for one-time profit—pointing out that other uses, like tourism or wind production, would be much better for local economies in the long term. The Appalachian Carbon Partnership helps landowners inventory the carbon sequestered in their forests and sell offsets; Green Forests Work reforests land that has been strip-mined; MACED helps companies and landowners get certified in sustainable forestry.

Campaign 2012’s coal theater—Mitt Romney reversing himself on the dangers of coal; the exec who laid off dozens of miners in Utah the day after the election, blaming President Obama; the repeated allegations of an EPA “war on coal”—was outdated even as it happened. It’s been a long time since coal could be called Appalachia’s way forward. Appalachians, more and more, know it—and are hard at work building something better.

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