Washington Post Explores Coal's Impact on Appalachian Communities

by John Gregory | 08/28/14 4:07 PM

During Monday's Kentucky Tonight program about energy policy, the panel discussed some of the significant challenges eastern Kentuckians face from the dramatic decrease in coal mining jobs in the region. Now two stories in The Washington Post provide additional perspectives on those issues and the prospects for unemployed miners in central Appalachia.

The paper's Assistant Business Editor Ryan McCarthy asks if coal has been a resource curse for the region. That's an economic theory that explores why areas that have a specific natural resource in abundance, like coal, are often poorer and have lower economic growth. McCarthy points to several studies that indicate coal may be such a curse for eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

  • Researchers at West Virginia University and the University of Colorado at Denver say the coal industry does provide good jobs and incomes during periods of high production, "but those boom-time opportunities come at the price of lower overall long-term growth." The authors say the presence of good-paying coal jobs, as few as there may be, tends to dissuade local workers from staying in school, and discourages local economic and industrial diversification efforts.
  • Analysts at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy also reference the long-term negative effects of coal's boom and bust cycles, and how the industry can dominate employment opportunities. A 2011 study from the center shows that in mining counties, almost 23 percent of jobs are related to mining and resource extraction. In West Virginia counties without mining operations, those jobs comprise less than 5 percent of the workforce. For the United States as a whole, it's 0.5 percent.

A second Washington Post story takes a more personal look at the limited options for unemployed miners in the region. Reporter Chico Harlan writes:

Miners, modestly educated but accustomed to high pay, are among the hardest group of American workers to retrain. They also tend to challenge one of the tenets of economics logic - that people will go elsewhere to find jobs. Even though the economy is growing in northern parts of West Virginia, driven by a natural gas boom, those in the geographically isolated southern parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty.

Harlan's story profiles Michael Estep, a 51-year-old miner who recently lost his $60,000 a year job. With no money in the family checking account, and few opportunities around his hometown of Logan, W.Va., Estep is facing the prospect of moving his family to Wheeling so he can work a lower paying mining job there.

Estep's plight echoes a concern expressed by Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association and a West Virginia native. On Kentucky Tonight, Bissett said, "What really bothers me the most is the fact that a lot of folks are probably going to have to move, and you're talking third- and fourth-generation people, and I think that's the real sadness of it."