Today, thousands of miners, relatives and supporters are expected to hold signs along roads in southern West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia in a "Hands Across Coal Country" demonstration to spotlight hard times caused by massive industry layoffs.
This protest rose spontaneously among jobless miner families sharing their woes on the Internet. One organizer, a miner's wife, told the Associated Press she hopes it will be "an inspiring and uplifting event for the people who were laid off." She added:
"It's just a way as a community to say, 'We can't stop anything, we can't do anything to prevent this from happening to you, but we can stand up for you. We can form a line three states long to show you we care.'"
Misery in the central Appalachian coal basin skyrocketed this year as a "perfect storm" of conditions struck the industry:
Cheap Marcellus gas undercut coal, causing electric utilities to switch power plants to cleaner-burning gas. Utility demand already was low because last winter's abnormal warmth left power plants with unused stockpiles of coal.
Thick Appalachian coal seams mostly are exhausted, leaving only thin, difficult, expensive reserves. Western coal is much cheaper. One market analysis said: "In early July, the average spot-market price from the Wyoming Powder River Basin was $8.50 a ton, compared to $56.10 a ton for Central Appalachian coal."
Chinese steel mills abruptly reduced their imports of high-grade metallurgical coal from America.
Federal projections estimate that output from Central Appalachian mines will fall from 186 million tons in 2010 to 72 million in 2024. Some miners, coal owners and politicians blame pollution controls for this decline, but environmental regulation is a small factor compared to larger market forces.
Over the decades, waves of hardship have struck the coalfields. Shortly after World War II, West Virginia had 125,000 miners. Then development of coal-cutting machines enabled out-of-state mine owners to ditch vast numbers of workers in the 1950s. Tens of thousands of miner families were forced to leave the state. Mine employment in West Virginia eventually dropped to about 15,000.Now more suffering is hurting those mine families who remain. It's a shame when ruthless forces of the economy wipe out communities and repeatedly force families to cope with loss. But there is something people can do. First, Republicans, and many West Virginia Democrats, for that matter, can stop posing as if the world isn't changing, that adaptation is unnecessary. They can stop leading each generation to believe that old-fashioned coal jobs will always be there, when market projections indicate otherwise, and have for generations.