CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some 87 different people-helping organizations have joined a project titled "Reconnecting McDowell," a school-led effort to reduce notorious poverty and social distress in West Virginia's southernmost county. Bravo. We hope these crusaders produce benefits.
McDowell is a famed example of a region that was used like a colony by out-of-state corporations -- bled for mineral wealth, then abandoned after coal riches were gone.
In the 1950s, McDowell had almost 100,000 population, and the county set national records for coal output. Welch boomed with prosperity. But the arrival of coal-cutting machines wiped out many miner jobs, followed by closure of mines as seams were depleted. Hard-up residents moved to other states in search of jobs.
McDowell's population fell relentlessly, decade after decade, and is only 21,729 today, the Census Bureau says. Per-capita income is just $13,000, far below the West Virginia average of $21,000, which is well below the U.S. average above $40,000. (Caution: different federal agencies issue conflicting income figures.)
More than one-third of McDowell residents live below the poverty line. The county has West Virginia's worst high school dropout rate. Health problems and premature deaths rank worst in the state. McDowell leads the nation in painkiller pill overdose deaths.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Chris Hedges calls McDowell County a "sacrifice zone" that was exploited by industry, then forgotten.
Currently, coal is declining in the Central Appalachian field, which encompasses southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts that tonnage will sink from 186 million in 2010 to just 72 million by 2024. The reason: Easy-to-reach Central Appalachian seams are becoming mined out, and only difficult, expensive coal remains. Cheap western coal and Marcellus Shale natural gas are grabbing many markets, especially for power plants.
Recurring mine shutdowns and layoffs are inflicting misery on various West Virginia communities. Last week's downsizing of 1,200 jobs by Alpha Natural Resources in three states was the latest blow. We hope more counties don't suffer McDowell's fate.
Some West Virginia politicians still hail the coal industry as supreme, and blame federal pollution controls for the trouble. But that's a red herring, merely a small aspect of the economic shift.
The Mountain State's economy seems to be going through a transition. Gas drilling is surging while coal subsides -- rather like the up-and-down of balancing weights on a scale. Nobody can predict such trends with accuracy, but we hope coal's retreat doesn't leave more McDowell-style hardship behind.