Â A reclaimed abandoned coal mine site in Clay County, W.Va.
The question of why Appalachia — a region so rich in valuable coal reserves — remains so poor, despite the coal trains hauling away our mountains ton by ton, is hardly a new one.
But there’s new discussion of it, especially given the nation’s current economic troubles, all of the talk from the Obama administration about “green jobs” and an energy revolution, and the continuing battle over mountaintop removal coal mining.
And, Obama has actually already announced one little-noticed initiative that could be a huge help — if only the coal industry, environmental groups, and regional political leaders would get behind it.
I thought about this while reading a new essay on the issue out today, from “Lost Mountain” author Erik Reece. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Reece blames mountaintop removal for the results of a recent Gallop Poll that found West Virginia and Kentucky the two most unhappy states in the nation.
The Gallup study found that high-scoring Utah residents derive much of their happiness from the wild, natural landscapes of the West. They explore places like the Arches National Monument and find inspiration and sustenance there. Here in the East, we have some of the oldest and most biologically diverse mountains in the world. But rather than view them as a source of our own psychological and spiritual well-being, we blow them apart and waste their watersheds.
Chart from Appalachian Voices.
Reece goes on:
People on the dime for the coal industry like to talk about all of the revenue that mining generates in Eastern Kentucky. Certainly someone is getting rich. But if the region’s 100 years of coal mining has been accompanied by 100 years of poverty — 30 percent now, the nation’s highest — it may be time to quit digging. Formal logic tells us that if a corollary persists between two events over time, then there is probably a connection. And what the Gallup poll demonstrates is that the places with the most strip mining have also the most poverty and the most unhappiness.
So, the coal industry has brought neither well-being nor wealth to Appalachia, and the destruction of these mountains has only led to more health problems related to water quality and respiratory illness. And the industry knows this. That’s why its spokesmen sound so frantic and desperate these days.
Then, Reece goes on to suggest that a “green economy” for Appalachia could change all of that. He offers suggestions, like jobs performing energy audits and weatherizing homes, or planting trees on abandoned strip mines.
It was that last example that got me … because President Obama has proposed a plan that would do volumes to help with that.
In his budget proposal to Congress, Obama promised to submit legislation that would stop sending coal tax money from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to states that have already cleaned up all of their abandoned coal mines.Â That’s right, we’re doing that …Â money meant to clean up abandoned coal mines is building roads and college buildings and doing all sorts of things besides cleaning up abandoned coal mines.
Obama’s proposal could free up $200 million a year that could be spent in the Appalachian coalfields, cleaning up the legacy of 100 years of mining without regulations.Â And guess what? The money could be going to pay coal miners to do the same sorts of work they’re already experts at, running heavy equipment and moving earth.
Whether Obama decides to limit or ban mountaintop removal, this proposal would still be an economic win for Appalachia. Most of the states that are spending money for non-coal projects are out West. States like West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania would be the biggest beneficiaries of the proposal.
But so far, you don’t hear anything out of political leaders here about it. Even Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., — the House’s patron saint of the AML program — has not come out in favor of Obama’s proposal. My guess is that Rahall likes the idea, but is concerned that it might not be politically viable, given the huge opposition from some GOP lawmakers.
The political calculus on this could change, though, if Obama got big backing from environmental groups, the coal industry and the United Mine Workers, not to mention governors and other political leaders in Appalachia.