To be sure, coal makes an impact on employment, wages, taxes and other items of West Virginia's economy, while controversy swirls around mountaintop mining and environmental issues.
I refer to a new report prepared by Alan L. Mierke for the West Virginia Coal Association. Mierke, a consultant and former deputy state tax commissioner, notes that coal companies and coal-fired electric utilities pay close to 60 percent of all state business taxes.
In 1996, the report says, West Virginia coal companies employed 21,296 miners directly and another 33,000 individuals worked for firms licensed to do mining contracting.
Coal miners earned an average wage of $49,490, or more than double the average wage of $23,000 earned by the rest of workers in the state. Coal also created about 60,000 jobs in such industries as power generation, steelmaking and machinery manufacturing.
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said, "No other state business or industry affects so many people in so many different ways. Tax dollars generated from coal translate directly into important education, government and community services."
Nonetheless, critics say the positive impact of the coal industry on the economy is exaggerated, particularly in light of its toll on human health and community life.
They call attention to a history of economic exploitation from the days of the old coal camps that spawned the song lyrics, "I owe my soul to the company store." Workers were had by mine owners, going and coming.
Yet jobs were just as important then as they are now to working souls, families and friends who support mountaintop mining.