Paying Every Price, and Bearing Every Burden, in WV Coalfield Communities

Paying Every Price, and Bearing Every Burden, in WV Coalfield Communities
Photo by yasin hm / Unsplash

[This piece was originally published in the Charleston Gazette in August, 2015.]

John Kennedy, in his inaugural address, said that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, or oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He need not have said this in West Virginia. West Virginia had already done that.

West Virginia — and her coalfield communities and miners, in particular — won two World Wars. West Virginia turned mountains of coal into rivers of steel for ships, tanks, and rifles. And her servicemen fought those wars – securing the blessings of liberty not only for ourselves, but for millions of strangers on the other side of the world. Over 100,000 Americans have died mining coal, and 100,000 more died later on from black lung. No one has counted all the costs paid by West Virginians to bring coal up from underground.

Even so, West Virginia has never been rich. As ton after ton of coal came out of the earth to fuel America, and to save Europe from fascism and Nazism, the working people of West Virginia never profiteered — never made more than a bare living on the hard work of mining coal and working steel. The great fortunes made in timber and coal were never widely shared. Even at the height of the industry (in terms of employment), more than 50 years ago, poverty in West Virginia’s coalfields was a scandal, that President Kennedy himself brought to the nation’s attention, and worked to end, before his assassination.

For more than 150 years, West Virginia has done her part, to build, to preserve, and to defend America. Come to find out it’s not enough. Even more is being asked of our state, much of it on behalf of people who don’t live here.

Over the last 15 years, West Virginia has been asked to give up more and more of the industry that built the state. Once the entire nation burned its lights, cooked its food, and heated its homes with our coal. Fifteen years ago, half the nation’s electricity came from coal – now it’s under 40 percent. Once the undisputed king of fuels in our country, and the world, coal has lost ground to cheap, fracked natural gas and other sources of energy.

But it isn’t just the economics — as competition has risen against coal, the country started complaining about it. “Too dirty,” “too dangerous,” “too much carbon pollution” — coal has lost its popularity in other parts of the country that don’t mine it and use it as West Virginia does. Energy sources that coal trounced in the marketplace 20 years ago are now selling better and better here and abroad.

Like any other major change, some people insist on denying it. Some people say it will all go back the way it was if we refuse to accept it. But the realistic question is: what are we going to do about it?

One thing that has to be recognized as we think our way through these changes is this: the country owes a literal and moral debt to our coalfield communities. West Virginia has done its part, and others have reaped the benefits, for a long, long time – that debt must be repaid.

We’re not talking about companies, owners and executives. West Virginia has minted a thousand millionaires in coal. No one owes them a thing. It remains a great scandal that executives, bankers and owners are trying to renege on retirement benefits and health benefits that coal miners were promised. It’s sickening to see millions, and tens of millions, taken by suits while working families suffer for want of the modest sums they worked hard to earn.

We’re talking about the people and families who made coal a way of life — not an easy life, but a life — that made this country great. The country owes them respect, and a lifeline, as the American colossus moves on to the next big thing. Our leaders have to demand it, and deliver it, to those who need it the most.

If the national plan to more heavily regulate emissions of carbon — which fall most heavily on coal communities — goes forward – as it seems it surely will, it must be accompanied by fair compensation and support for the cities and towns that will pay the price, and bear the burden, for what the country as a whole has chosen. Like the miners of Patriot Coal — West Virginia has earned the right to that.

We are not talking about a “handout,” any more than the retirements miners worked for and were promised are a “handout.” We’re talking about fair treatment and just compensation — an even playing field, and a chance to make it to the future. There are billions of dollars to be had to re-tool, re-train, and re-vitalize our state and West Virginia must seize them.

We don’t have time to waste trying to sue the federal government into submission. There’s no light at the end of that tunnel. We can’t refuse to accept the market conditions or the decisions of millions of other people to burn less coal. The longer we take to squarely face the facts, the harder the road will be. We’re going to need help and we can’t afford to look gift horses in the mouth or play momentary politics with the future of a generation of West Virginians hanging in the balance.

Help from those we have helped for so long must be forthcoming. Anything less would be a betrayal. Not of Arch, or Murray, or Alpha — not of any company or boss. It would be a betrayal of the veterans of the coal mines, and West Virginia’s honored dead who gave their lives to bring coal out of the ground to a country that was once greedy for it. We’ve done our part for the country and we must call on it to do its part for West Virginia now.

Our representatives must fight to make sure the moral debt the United States of America owed to our coalfield communities is met in full. It is the least they can do for the men and women who have paid every price, borne every burden, and met every hardship, to make this country what it is today.