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Despair: After coal departs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Reform crusader Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner, says McDowell County is a showcase of misery left behind after an industry bleeds off mineral wealth, then abandons the local populace to poverty and hopelessness.

His new book "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt," describes several American "sacrifice zones" that were exploited for profit, then ditched as the economy shifted elsewhere. His chapter on McDowell County tells how out-of-state coal corporations used the mountain region like a colony to extract wealth, then departed, leaving little but despair.

McDowell's unemployed try to qualify for disability checks, or turn to fundamentalist religion, he wrote -- and tragically, many sink into painkiller abuse. The book says:

"A decade ago, only about 5 percent of those seeking treatment in West Virginia needed help with opiate addiction. Today, that number has ballooned to 26 percent. [The state] recorded 91 overdose deaths in 2001. By 2008, that number had risen to 390. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in West Virginia, and the state leads the country in fatal drug overdoses. OxyContin, nicknamed 'hillbilly heroin,' is king."

Hedges' book, written with sketch artist Joe Sacco, describes three unemployed men living together in Gary, staying stoned on pills while they recall how their miner fathers and grandfathers once brought home fat paychecks. They commented:

"Welch used to be a booming place . . . all them stores . . .  . But when the U.S. Steel cleaning plant went out, that was it for this county  . . .  . You seen a lot of people depressed after that, wondering how they were gonna make it . . .  . It was devastating. A lot of people didn't have a good education, so there wasn't anything else to turn to. The coal mines was all they ever knew."

Seven weeks after talking to the author, one of the Gary men, Neil Heizer, died of a drug overdose, the book says.

Since his years as a New York Times reporter, author Hedges has grown increasingly strident against U.S. industries and conservative politicians. Last year, he gave a fiery speech against them at West Virginia State University.

Regardless, he seems accurate about McDowell County, where loss of coal jobs caused population to fall from 99,000 in 1950 to 22,000 today, an astounding collapse.

Incidentally, a new novel, "A Killing in the Hills" by Julia Keller, features pill addicts in a destitute, mined-out, West Virginia community.

Many forecasts say cheap Wyoming coal and Marcellus Shale gas will undercut central Appalachian coal rapidly, wiping out half of the industry in coming decades. If it happens, McDowell's misery might be suffered in other coal-dependent West Virginia locales.


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