CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Occupy Wall Street has captured the attention and imagination of many who are disillusioned with our current political and economic climate. Although West Virginia is geographically far from Wall Street, the issues of inequality and corporate ownership raised by protesters are especially relevant to West Virginia.
The explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners focused national attention on the human cost of coal mining, yet did little to question the larger power dynamics of corporate ownership and inequality that continue to place the land and people of West Virginia at risk.
The last systematic study of land ownership patterns (done in 1981) found that nearly 60 percent of land in the sample of West Virginia counties studied was corporate-owned -- and the percentage is even higher for mineral ownership. This is a result of conscious exploitation by outsiders and local elites who were able to buy up much of the mineral wealth of the state around the turn of the last century.
The inequality that is the focus of Occupy Wall Street can be felt acutely in southern West Virginia communities that are some of the poorest in the state, yet are surrounded by some of the richest coal reserves in the country.
The southern West Virginia counties that produce around 100 million tons of coal a year have persistently remained some of the poorest counties in the nation, while out-of-state coal and natural gas companies enjoy high profits. With so much of the land owned by corporations, there are fewer opportunities for locally-based economic development that would keep more of the money in the local communities.
The 1981 land ownership study showed that absentee landholding companies typically pay less on property taxes per acre than local owners, which leads to lower tax revenues and social services for our counties. At the very least, as some state legislators have proposed, we should be using severance taxes to create a trust fund to keep some of the wealth in-state and prepare for the future.
If we had an additional 5 percent severance tax on coal and natural gas going into a trust fund, we would be getting $500 million a year. That is money that could be invested in the future, by making higher education more affordable, providing better child health care services, and investing in workforce development, for example.
Not only has corporate ownership made it more difficult for West Virginians to benefit from the natural resource wealth of our state, it has also contributed to our perpetual problems with job loss. Take the coal industry, for example. The amount of coal produced per worker more than doubled from the early 1980s through 2000, largely due to increased mechanization and a shift toward strip mining. We have perverse financial incentives that reward corporations for investing in capital-intensive equipment instead of more workers. As a result, we have an increasingly mechanized industry, bankrolled by Wall Street, that employs increasingly destructive mining practices and fewer people.
The question of who owns and profits from West Virginia's natural resources is one that we need to be asking more often. In terms of natural resources, we are one of the wealthiest states in the country, and we should no longer allow the 1 percent to treat us as a sacrifice zone for the nation's cheap electricity.
Buysse is project coordinator at Coal River Mountain Watch, and Kunkel is project manager of the group's Sustainable Energy Project.