This year, many of my fellow West Virginians will allow coal industry politics to influence their voting decision. I can understand that. The idea of coal and West Virginia seem inseparable. For those who grew up there, it’s hard to think of one without the other.
As a kid, I distinctly remember the organization “Friends of Coal.” This is a group, founded in 2002, whose mission is to “increase awareness of the importance of the coal industry to the state’s and the nation’s economy and its people.”
The influence that this group has in WV is impressive. In order to spread their message, they often recruit prominent West Virginians to speak on their behalf including the head coaches of our beloved football teams. For many years, West Virginia had the “Friends of Coal” Bowl where the WVU Mountaineers would play Marshall as an act of state-togetherness.
It’s even major news when Friends of Coal endorses a political candidate.
With all of this in mind, it’s not surprising that most West Virginians support coal and hate any policy or politician that speaks against it. Personally, I grew up thinking “If you’re not a friend of coal, do you hate West Virginia?” It’s part of our history, our identity, and nearly every politician that’s represented our state has worked to protect the coal industry to some degree.
But I want to tell you that this mindset is doing irreparable damage to our state and its constituents and it’s about time we all woke up.
It’s a sad irony that West Virginians express unconditional love for an industry that
We are quick to forget about the miners who died in the Upper Branch Mining disaster in 2010 and the Sago Mine disaster of 2006. We've already moved on from the coal plant chemical spill in the Elk River that left 300,000 West Virginians without water.
But beyond these large high-publicity incidents, coal is also silently and slowly killing our residents. Horrific working standards and longer hours of expected work has brought black lung among coal miners to the highest level it's been in 40 years.
Many may be unaware that a 2011 study showed that West Virginia coal mining communities have significantly higher mortality rates and poverty rates compared to other West Virginia counties. And most probably don’t realize that the coal industry provides fewer than 3 percent of West Virginia jobs.
I know what you’re thinking “Yes, that stuff is bad, but the coal industry gives our state millions of tax dollars that we’ve come to rely on!”
True, in fact in 2009, the coal industry provided a whopping $309 million to our beautiful state. Unfortunately that’s not the full story. It also costs the state of West Virginia to own and operate these coal mines.
There are items on the West Virginia state budget that only exist because of our state’s coal industry. These include things like the money it takes to maintain and repair the state’s haul roads. Even units of government within the Department of Commerce and the Department of Environmental Protection would be unnecessary if it weren’t for our coal business.
A 2009 report showed that the coal industry costs more than it makes for the state of West Virginia. This study concluded that the coal industry actually costs our state nearly $100 million a year.
“While every job and every dollar of revenue generated by the coal industry provides an economic benefit for the state of West Virginia…the net impact of the West Virginia coal industry… amounted to a net cost to the state of $97.5 million in Fiscal Year 2009.” Downstream Strategies Report
To make matters worse, this report was conducted before the 2014 chemical spill which cost the state $61 million. And of course, the report does not take into account the costs of West Virginia’s contribution to climate change.
Even still, West Virginians cling to coal with soot-dusted knuckles, blaming Obama and the EPA for coal industry hardships.
In reality, this “war on coal” is greatly exaggerated. According to the Economist, “Market forces, from cheap natural gas to dwindling Appalachian coal reserves, have so far killed more mining jobs than green rules have.”
The fact is, we’re trading the livelihood of our constituents to be a nation-wide leading provider of a dying energy source.
The coal industry is bad for the state of West Virginia. It’s bad for the health of people who live here, it costs more than it provides, and it only accounts for 3 percent of West Virginia jobs.
I’m not saying that West Virginian needs to get rid of coal tomorrow. Coal currently provides 99 percent of West Virginia’s electricity, so it’s not practical to go cold turkey off of this nonrenewable resource. But, fighting for West Virginia to be completely reliant on the coal industry is costing us dearly.
West Virginia is in dire shape and coal is making it worse. As the 2nd poorest state in the country, we need to start investing in sustainable solutions that will help rather than hurt our state. We need to stop being a “Friend of Coal” because coal is certainly not a friend to West Virginia.
What Can I Do?
Copy this link (www.thespacegal.com/blog/2016/1/21/wake-up-west-virginia-coal-is-not-good-for-you) and tweet it to the West Virginia representatives below:
- Senator Joe Manchin
- Senator Shelly Moore Capito
- House Representative Alex Mooney
- House Representative David McKinley
- House Representative Evan Jenkins