By Brian Sewell
From the muddy path that led to the cabin, reporters and cameramen waited to document the modest declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty.” That day in 1964, surrounded by children on the front porch of a home in eastern Kentucky, President Lyndon B. Johnson alerted Americans that “Appalachia missed out on the abundance which has been granted to the rest of the nation.”
Over the next several decades, federal funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission contributed to growth in places such as Atlanta, Birmingham and Pittsburgh, but it often overlooked the economic and environmental toll of natural resource extraction. Today, counties in the heart of the region remain among the most impoverished in the country.
Communities of Central Appalachia are now feeling the pressure of what is likely coal’s long-term decline. As a result, some Appalachian politicians are decrying a perceived political “war on coal.” Others are addressing the divergence of the coal industry’s interests from those of the communities they represent.
The mixed results of economic initiatives in Appalachia are not for a lack of will. During the 20th century, social and labor movements repeatedly rose in opposition to unjust land leases, anti-union policy, insufficient medical care for miners with black lung disease and the destruction of mountaintop removal. Each time, there were powerful forces pushing back.
In the late 1800s, landowners were coaxed into selling their mineral rights for as little as 10 cents an acre. Soon, with access to abundant natural resources, wealthy out-of-state owners turned their attention to politics, helping to elect governors and congressmen to safeguard their investments and perpetuate profits.
The coal industry’s political influence began to come to light at the turn of the century. The pursuit of a severance tax on natural resource extraction in West Virginia repeatedly failed under pressure from Standard Oil Company and other corporations.
In 1953, Governor William C. Marland tried again saying, “For the past fifty years, we have seen our natural resources exploited, in many cases extravagantly and wastefully, by outside capital.” The proposed tax was summarily defeated by Marland’s own party. It wasn’t until 1980 that a severance tax was passed.
Increasingly, union-led strikes, periods of upheaval including the black lung movement, and coal-related disasters such as the Farmington Mine explosion in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972 revealed a culture of government and industry collusion, the poor enforcement of existing laws, and an apparent disregard for the safety of miners and their families out of deference to coal companies’ avarice.
By 1970, mountaintop removal had grown widespread. Far fewer miners were required, but coal companies argued that if Appalachia had more flat land to develop, the shortage of jobs in the region would be easily remedied.
That year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Rockefeller came out against mountaintop removal, saying that “strip mining of coal must be prohibited by law, completely and forever.” He altered his position after being defeated despite outspending his opponent two-to-one. Now a U.S. senator, Rockefeller expressed his outrage with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 after the agency vetoed one of the largest mountaintop removal permits in history. “Let there be no doubt that surface mining operations can and must be done in an environmentally sensitive manner,” he wrote in a letter to President Obama.
Mining is not the only industry in the region. Manufacturing, agriculture and the furniture industry have all gone through their own transformations. But the edifice shaped by extractive industries and the politicians who create economic, tax and environmental policy has remained largely intact. Although the greatest current threat to domestic coal use is cheap natural gas, rules pursued by the EPA under President Obama have galvanized the coal industry and its supporters in Congress. The industry’s political visibility and resolve has rarely been greater.
Last year, TV ads targeting key votes began airing before a vote to block an EPA rule to cut harmful emissions from coal plants. Even adamantly pro-coal Senator Joe Manchin earned a mention in an ad stating, “Senator Joe Manchin may vote right, but will he lead others to stand up to Obama?”
On the day of the vote, Sen. Manchin reminded his colleagues that, “From the day I arrived in the Senate, I have been determined to stop the EPA’s jobs-killing agenda.” Sen. Rockefeller, on the other hand, criticized the industry’s “war on coal” message that claims the future is bleak “unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.” By speaking out, Rockefeller publicly severed his ties with the industry months before announcing he would not seek re-election in 2014.
Similar battles have played out in the U.S. House of Representatives, in congressional hearings and in the statehouses of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
Arguments in defense of reducing regulation have gained traction in the politics of Central Appalachia and the United States as a whole. But so have ideas on how to improve the long-term health and prosperity of Appalachian communities, ideas that can be hastened by political courage in pivotal times.
During his campaign for southwestern Virginia’s 9th district congressional seat, Anthony Flaccavento, a farmer who has worked on community development, often made the distinction between being “pro-coal” and “pro-coal miner.”
“To be pro-coal miner,” he wrote in an editorial last summer, “is to start telling the truth about this long-term job loss – which will continue whether a Republican or Democrat occupies the White House – and to work like mad, right now, to create new manufacturing jobs and new businesses that can begin to make up for these losses and build an economy that will provide opportunities for our children.”
Although he was endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America, Flaccavento lost to the incumbent, Rep. Morgan Griffith, who was heavily backed by the coal industry.
In a chapter titled “A Legacy of Neglect” in its 1964 report, the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission advised the president and Congress that “further resource activity in the region — if uncoordinated in its timing or its relationship to human and social capital — could repeat the past pattern and make little more than a piecemeal improvement of the Appalachian social and economic substructure.”
More than half a century after the group of governors, federal officials and regional stakeholders convened, their prescriptions for the nation’s elected leaders persist. But that doesn’t mean there is not a way forward.