Coal Tattoo

When will W.Va. plan for ‘after coal’?

Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

As I write this, I’m also listening to a variety of state officials and lawmakers as they meet with the statehouse press corps in the AP’s annual “Legislative Look Ahead” event in preparation for this year’s legislative session. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the coal industry, with most of it focused on whether a downturn will mean problems for the state government budget.

What there’s very little talk about is exactly what West Virginia is going to do — and when we might actually start doing it — to enable the state to better deal with the ongoing decline of the Central Appalachian coal industry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin continued to keep his head firmly lodged in the sand, insisting that better days for the coal industry are just around the corner. Tomblin’s budget officials focused on the importance of maintaining a state rainy day fund to keep government functioning during downturns in the natural “boom-bust” of an energy economy — as if West Virginia has no other options but to submit itself to that boom-bust cycle. And Republican legislative leaders took their chance to continue to pretend that the Obama administration’s environmental policies are the only thing causing coal’s decline.

Oddly enough, I took a trip down memory lane earlier in the week, thanks to a press release in which West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced he had hired State Journal managing editor (and former Huntington paper reporter) Beth Gorczyca Ryan as his communications director. The release noted:

Before joining The State Journal, Ryan was the special projects reporter for The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington for three years. While there, Ryan was the lead reporter on two award-winning series, “West Virginia After Coal,” which was honored by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, and “Home for Good,” which looked at the outmigration of young people from West Virginia and the impact it has on the state.

Frankly, I’m ashamed to say I had forgotten about the “West Virginia After Coal” series. But I was able to find a few of the stories still online here (look for the September 2000 Herald-Dispatch stories), and reading them was kind of strange. Why? Because in many ways, these same stories could have been written today. For example, one story, headlined, “Peering into a murky future,” starts out:

John Bias always thought his future was underground. For generations, men in his family worked the mines of Boone County. It was hard work and good pay. For 11 months, Bias followed in their footsteps. Then last year he was laid off. Now 20 and unemployed, Bias sits in downtown Madison in Boone County hoping to find another job that pays as well. It ’s not easy. To Bias and others, Boone County and much of southern West Virginia seem unprepared for coal’s decreasing role in their economy. Little has been done, Bias says, to court new jobs. Little has been done to prepare young people for a life without mining. Now state and county leaders are realizing that needs to change. Soon.

The story goes on to conclude:

If coal production continues to decline, economists and development experts agree: West Virginia is ill-prepared for an economy without coal mining.

These stories are far from perfect.

For example, relying mostly on the comments of one Marshall University professor, the Herald-Dispatch inflated the potential impacts of federal court rulings to limit mountaintop removal. They ignored other information (see here and here) that suggested the impacts weren’t so great — just as state officials and much of the media today too often blame only the Obama administration’s environmental policies for coal’s woes, ignoring other more significant factors.

Also, the paper’s stories were overly optimistic about how much coal was left to be mined in Southern West Virginia — much as failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did in lauding the nation’s remaining coal reserves. Even at the time these stories were published, experts had long warned about the day the coal would run out in our region.

And as then-Gazette editorial page editor Dan Radmacher pointed out in a column at the time, the Herald-Dispatch stories — while longing for more flat land for development in Southern West Virginia — ignored the fact that the mining industry itself had created quite a bit of flat land, but simply refused to comply with federal requirements that it plan future economic or community development for those mined-out sites.

At the time, I remember thinking that some of these weaknesses — especially the ones that ignored important facts about mountaintop removal — were really a big deal, and undercut the significance of the series. In retrospect, I am pretty sure I was overly worried about those weaknesses and made too much of them. It’s rare that the media in West Virginia bite into a story that is this big, this complicated and this important in anywhere near as big a way as the Herald-Dispatch and Public Broadcasting (their partner on the project) did with this series. And it’s just as rare that public officials pay attention, even when we in the media do our jobs.

Looking back, I would have served readers better to write more about this big picture — where the inevitable decline of coal would lead our state and what should be done to limit the damage and maybe even improve things — and less about the every-day detail of the mountaintop removal lawsuits (though Dan’s point about the connection between the two issues is one that remains vitally important to address).

But today, some smart folks in the media are more and more often trying to bring out this issue of what West Virginia needs to do to build a future. The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy continues to push the notion of a “future fund,” for example. And slowly but surely, despite some efforts to keep promoting the idea that a boom is just around the corner, even the West Virginia coal industry is beginning to admit the decline — and its real causes. Just this week, Taylor Kuykendall over at the State Journal, reported some comments from West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton:

Different battles in the coal industry versus environmentalists have resulted in a scattering of victories and losses on both sides. Meanwhile, Appalachian coal miners face a potentially greater challenge: The fact that “easy” to mine coal already has been extracted and the resource is getting thinner, deeper underground and farther from key transportation resources.

“We will continue to be challenged here from a mining standpoint because our reserve base is diminishing,” Hamilton said. “It’s fair to say we have a smaller reserve base that has more geological and technical challenges in the mining of it.”

It’s too bad that more West Virginia political leaders didn’t pay more attention to Beth’s stories more than a decade ago … but it’s not too late — at least we better all hope it’s not.