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Editorial: The decline of coal

What’s it like when the coal industry leaves a place? Former West Virginian Mike Connell, now a Pennsylvania columnist, wrote a touching account of the former mining town where his father grew up — today mostly abandoned.

Leckrone, Pennsylvania, once had hundreds of miners and coke oven workers “producing the fuel for Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills,” he said. But today, Leckrone is a boarded-up relic of vacant coal company buildings and rows of former company houses. “Architecturally, they’re about as interesting as a trailer park,” he wrote.

“The mines played out. The miners moved on. Their grandchildren flourished. Their great-grandchildren — my generation — look back through a dark glass, sensing what was.”

It’s inescapable that coal seams eventually become exhausted, and the lifeblood of mining regions disappears. Connell added:

“Consider the incongruities found in West Virginia, which produces more coal than any state except Wyoming. Thank God for Mississippi, or coal-rich West Virginia would rank dead last among the 50 states in per-capita income. McDowell County ... has produced more coal than any county in the country. Blessed with mineral riches, the Saudi Arabia of North America, it is also the most impoverished of West Virginia’s 55 counties.”

The fadeout that ended Leckrone’s heritage seems to be occurring in various parts of the Central Appalachian coal basin, consisting mostly of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Federal statistics say the zone had 79,000 miners in 1983, but their numbers fell to 33,000 during the recent Bush administration. Under President Obama, they have climbed back to 41,000 — yet more future decline is projected.

Thick, easy-to-mine seams are mostly exhausted. Only thin, difficult, expensive coal remains. Low-cost Wyoming coal and low-cost natural gas are grabbing energy markets. Federal analysts predict that Central Appalachian output will sink from 290 million tons in 1997 to just 86 million by 2035. Within West Virginia, they foresee a drop from 158 million tons in 2008 to 90 million in 2020.

Declines like these inflict terrible hardship on communities dependent on coal. Jobs and businesses disappear. Young people move away. Sadly, the dog-eat-dog economy can be a monster indifferent to suffering.

Most West Virginia politicians try to blame the retreat of coal on federal pollution controls. But that outlook ignores underlying realities. Instead of chanting “war on coal,” leaders should launch intelligent efforts to help the state cope with the transformation that is in progress, and focus on steering toward the best future.


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