Or is it?
Is the driver
really in love with a dirty lump of prehistoric vegetable matter? Does
his heart beat faster at the thought of combusting fossil fuel? Is he
proclaiming his affection for an arrangement of carbon atoms?
More likely, what the
driver really loves is not coal, but what it does for him or her. Coal,
we are often told, is essential to Kentucky’s economy. Interfere with
the coal industry, and you eliminate jobs, destroy communities, and take
food out of little kids’ mouths. If the future of coal mining is in
mountaintop removal, then restrictions on this process will doom
countless Eastern Kentuckians to unemployment and a dismal standard of
That’s what the coal
industry would very much like us to believe. But a firsthand look shows
a very different picture.
If you ever have a chance
to fly over a mountaintop- removal operation, the first thing that will
strike you is its staggering scale.
You’ll see draglines and power
shovels bigger than houses scrape away the coal and load it into massive
dump trucks. But all of these machines are swallowed up in the enormity
of the site, and as you pass over, you’ll spot only a few people at
work on the field. A handful of human beings are enough to pulverize an
entire mountain and shove it aside.
have family ties to coal, with grandfathers and uncles and cousins and
parents who worked in mining. For many people’s forebears, a steady
job in the mines meant a leg up in the world, advantages for their
children and grandchildren that they themselves never had.
But these personal ties
are becoming ever weaker and more distant. Over the decades, increased
efficiency in mining methods means that more and more coal is produced
by fewer and fewer people. In 1979, there were 35,902 mining jobs in
Eastern Kentucky. By 2003, there were only 13,036. For every three
people who once worked the mines, two are now doing something else.
Despite this tremendous
drop in coal employment, Kentucky is still turning out nearly as much
coal as it ever did—production has gone down only twelve percent in
the last two decades. Coal companies favor mountaintop removal because
it is the most efficient way to get coal out of the ground—and it cuts
their labor costs significantly. In 2003, the average Eastern Kentucky
mine worker produced 3.77 short tons of coal per hour in a surface mine—compared
with 3.04 tons per hour in an underground mine. Put in
human terms, it
takes 24 percent fewer workers to produce the same amount of coal by
Every form of coal
mining, from underground mining to conventional surface mining to
mountaintop removal, has seen tremendous increases in productivity in
recent years—which means declines in the number of workers needed.
Overall, in the Appalachian region, coal mining productivity went up an
average of 4.9 percent every year between 1988 and 1997, and it remained
52 percent higher in 2003 compared to 1988.
But all this is neither
here nor there, if you live in Eastern Kentucky and you need a job.
Nevertheless, if coal mining really is the economic keystone that the
mining industry would like us to believe it is, then you would think
that Eastern Kentucky communities with coal would be doing much better
than communities that lack it.
You would be dead wrong.
In Eastern Kentucky,
there are thirteen counties that produce large amounts of coal—over
500,000 tons per year. Call them the "coal counties"—Bell,
Breathitt, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Lawrence, Leslie,
Letcher, Martin, Perry, and Pike. Another twelve eastern counties
produce little or no coal—Clay, Elliott, Estill, Jackson, Lee,
Magoffin, McCreary, Menifee, Morgan, Owsley, Powell, and Wolfe. We’ll
call them the "non-coal counties."
So, how do they stack up,
economically? Consider the numbers on median family income. (If you
ranked all the families in the county from top to bottom by their
income, exactly half would earn more than this amount, and half would
earn less.) In the thirteen eastern coal
counties, median family income
is $24,985; in the twelve eastern non-coal counties, it’s $24,374.
That’s not much of a difference, especially when you consider that the
median family income for all Kentuckians is $40,939. Coal has little
impact on the pattern of family incomes.
Some people will say that
this figure includes counties where coal mining isn’t that important,
so let’s look at a place where Coal really is King. In Pike County,
the state’s biggest coal producer, 51.8 percent of families must get
by on less than $25,000 a year. In the whole of Kentucky, only 37.5
percent of families have such low incomes. In Powell County, which doesn’t
produce a single lump of coal, the figure was 49.1 percent.
On the whole, information
on people’s situation in coal and non-coal counties in the 2000 U.S.
Census shows very little difference between them. Some numbers are very
slightly worse in the coal counties—for example,
38 percent of
working-age people have disabilities there, compared with 36.8 percent
in the non-coal counties. Other things are very slightly better. In the
coal counties, 59.1 per cent of adults have a high school diploma, while
53.3.percent in the non-coal counties have one. But on the whole, the
profiles are very similar. In coal counties, 77.9 percent of families
are homeowners; in non-coal counties, it’s 77.8 percent.
The real shocker is
seeing who truly is doing better. Consider a third group of counties in
Eastern Kentucky, the ones that are crossed by Interstate Highways 64
and 75. Call these the "interstate counties"—Bath, Boyd,
Carter, Fleming, Laurel, Rockcastle, Rowan, and Whitley.
By every economic and
social yardstick, they are better off than the coal counties. Median
family income in the interstate counties is $32,658—meaning that the
"middle" family there earns $8,000 more than in the coal
counties. Less than half of families must get by on less than $25,000.
Far more people have high school diplomas, far fewer working-age people
and children have disabilities, fewer families with kids live under the
poverty line—and more people even have telephones.
One important reason for
the difference is that major highways help make possible a more balanced
economy. Factories and retailers locate there because they can more
easily reach a broader market. Workers have access to a wider variety of
jobs. Tourists can easily come to explore places like Cumberland Falls,
Renfro Valley, and Daniel Boone National Forest. And money flows into
the area as capital and stays there, instead of being drained away as
natural resources are used up.
In contrast to the coal
counties, where communities boom when the mines are hiring and die when
they’re laying off, areas with more balanced economies are better able
to survive economic
downturns. When one industry isn’t doing well,
another will be hiring. And in a balanced economy, more money is
circulated through the community by locally-owned businesses, rather
than being shipped out in the profits of a faraway coal company.
For 130 years now, we’ve
been told over and over again that coal is good for Kentucky, but the
numbers tell a different story. More than 7.8 billion tons of coal have
been mined here in that time. But despite the extraction of vast mineral
wealth from our land, Kentucky continues its uphill struggle to provide
a decent living, a good education, and a clean environment for its
people. And the counties of the eastern coalfields, with the richest
natural resources of all, remain among the poorest in the entire state.
Today, too many people
are still asking, "What would we do if we didn’t have coal?"
Our question, instead, should be: "What could we do if we
didn’t have coal?"
This article is taken from Missing
Mountains. The book is available from your local bookstore,
on-line vendors such as Amazon
or Barnes & Noble, or you may order directly from the publisher.