Last week, I wrote about the decline of the coal industry and how leaders from coal-dependent communities balance environmental protection with the need for the stability coal jobs bring. The four community leaders I interviewed agreed that building strong, diverse local economies are the key to an environmentally and economically healthy future for their regions. So how exactly are coal towns in the mountain communities throughout the country going about diversifying thus far?
AMRDI’s home state of Colorado saw a 40 percent drop in coal production in 2016. As mines which fuel power plants in the region continue to close, several communities in Delta County are focusing on solar and hydro power to provide new jobs, cheaper power for residents, and a healthier environment. A local solar training school is starting to work with miners who have been laid off to prepare them for careers in solar and hydro power.
Another Colorado plan involves capturing excess methane that continues to off-gas long after a mine closes and converting it into electricity.
Benham $aves of Harlan County, Kentucky, is a locally-driven development project providing jobs to former miners and other locals to retrofit homes to be more energy efficient, which has the added benefit of making utility bills more affordable for area residents.
In Pike County (KY), meanwhile, home to 50 mines as of 2015 (by far the most of any county in the country), Bit Source aims to establish a thriving tech industry in Appalachia by employing displaced miners in graphic design, web design, and photography. Tech has permeated coal communities in other forms too – an Obama era program (now uncertain) was designed to teach laid-off coal workers how to pilot drones, at which more than one miner has proven very adept.
In a different direction, a number of communities are looking to organic agriculture to address economic, environmental, and public health needs. Refresh Appalachia is repurposing surface mine sites into forestry and sustainable farming enterprises in southern West Virginia. The project retrains and employs former mine workers in the enterprise. The New York Times reports that Kentucky residents who are out of work are increasingly turning to farming to support themselves. At least one of these farms has decided to specialize in hemp production, securing contracts with clothing companies such as Patagonia.
Finally, back in Delta County, Colorado, local leaders hope to expand the already thriving agri-tourism and sustainable agriculture sectors in their area. Thanks to Big B’s Juices, an apple orchard that sells juice and ciders throughout the country and hosts tours, the groundwork has already been laid.
Delta County also purchased a former grocery store with the goal of transforming the building into a “specialty food manufacturing incubator.” Community leaders envision a space with a commercial kitchen and classrooms where entrepreneurs could collaborate with farmers to produce high end organic food products to sell nationwide – generating a new economics sector from the ground up.
The above examples demonstrate the tenacity, creativity and resilience of coal communities written off as dead. Leaders and miners alike have cobbled together grants, and other tenuous finances, to spark new businesses and experiment in new industries. But do these ideas lead to full employment replacement for former miners, as well as the jobs indirectly tied to the economy supported by coal mining? Is it, one has to consider, enough?
In most of the above projects, despite the successes, workers experience a drastic decline in their current wages compared with mining incomes.
Bit Source, the tech company in Kentucky, was able to hire just 10 of the 10,000 miners who have been laid off in the region in recent years. The ability to run a company like Bit Source, moreover, requires access to broadband internet capabilities, which remains a hurdle for many rural areas across the country according to the Federal Communications Commission, especially in rural regions where mines are located.
The methane capture project in Colorado is likely to employ just two people full time, once construction is completed.
A further challenge lies in the reality that when coal mines shutter, communities don’t just lose jobs in the mines, they lose substantial amounts of tax revenue as well, which has far reaching impacts on county budgets and local governments’ abilities to invest in economic diversification projects. Several of the projects described above are supported by federal and state development programs during their initial stages to help them get off the ground and become more financially viable.
In other words, rural communities, hit hard by economic and employment shocks, are innovating in the most real sense, far from Silicon Valley, and with everything to lose. But individual projects are proving insufficient by themselves. Tech’s presence is hampered by insufficient broadband. Weak tax revenues mean poor performing schools, closing hospitals and broken infrastructure – each essential to lure larger employers and a workforce. Coal communities need clusters of business, and enterprise, coupled with basic investments, external support, and access to financial capital.
The real hurdle, then, has not been the ingenuity or tenacity of local communities, their leaders or laid-off miners, but the diversion of resources -- from urban to rural, from DC to Delta, and from Wall Street to West Virginia. It’s not too late to reverse this.
In the third and final blog in this series on transitioning coal economies, posted next Monday, I will be a bit more aspirational, and a bit more experimental. I will explore, alongside AMRDI, policies and practices that might yet assist coal communities in their transition, and hasten their successes.