Stakeholders from across the country are collaborating on a path to a better economy for coal-impacted regions
For decades, the coal industry has gone through cycles of boom and bust. When, on top of other factors, the price of natural gas plummeted in the early 2010s, communities that had long depended on coal were hard hit by the massive job losses that followed. Out of the 91,611 national coal jobs in 2011, only 53,583 remained in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
While Appalachia was heavily impacted by these job losses, workers and families in places like the Midwest and the Navajo Nation are also bearing the brunt of the coal industry’s decline. This has contributed to challenges such as poverty and decaying infrastructure. To address these and other problems, community leaders across the country are devising ways to foster economic opportunity.
In Preston County and Whitesville, W.Va., officials and local nonprofit organizations are utilizing federal funds to transform old railroad tracks into recreational trails. Outside of Page, Ariz., Native American entrepreneurs are working to electrify thousands of homes on Navajo and Hopi land using solar energy. There are many more examples of what economic transition can look like; job retraining, employment services, investment in education, and stimulating entrepreneurship are just a few.
To support efforts like these, the Just Transition Fund convened advocates to call for a national community transition program to promote economic development in coal-impacted regions. The nonprofit organization and grantmaker is dedicated to helping communities with historically coal-based economies. Appalachian Voices, the nonprofit organization that publishes this newspaper, is one of the groups involved and is a grantee of the fund.
“From our perspective, this problem is so big it needs a response at every level, including a federal response that’s informed by the powerful work happening on-the-ground in coal communities all over the country,” says Just Transition Fund Co-founder and Executive Director Heidi Binko. “We need state action, local action, and we need the private sector to scale.”
Specifically, the groups involved are developing a platform that advocates for a “just transition” — meaning solutions that move away from an extractive economy and toward one that is socially and environmentally sustainable. Since early 2019, the organizations have been developing a platform outlining federal strategies that would provide immediate and long-term support to workers and communities. Project planners anticipate releasing the platform in late winter.
“The Just Transition Fund collaborates closely with these partners. We work across the country to find, fund and scale innovative policies and programs, so we’ve developed a good perspective on who’s leading,” says Binko. “Together as partners, we’re identifying the best solutions to draw a roadmap that national decision makers can follow if they want to effectively tackle this problem.”
One of these groups is the BlueGreen Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works with labor unions and environmental interests to advance a stronger, greener economy.
“We believe very strongly that the country lacks a decent support system for people that have been on the hurting end of changes in our economy,” says BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh. “And so our solutions can’t just rely on what’s already there. We actually need to approach this challenge much more ambitiously, and we’ve got to bring new tools to that project.”
Stating that there is no single “silver bullet” approach, the platform is instead expected to suggest a multitude of ways the federal government can contribute toward a sustainable, inclusive economic transition for coal communities. These include supporting local leaders, mine reclamation, long-term economic diversification, infrastructure improvement and more.
The Eastern Kentucky-based Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, or MACED, is another of the nonprofit organizations involved in developing the platform.
“We recognize that this overall just transition is never going to be solved by any one approach or any one organization,” says MACED President Peter Hille. “We see our work as being importantly integrated with a bunch of different organizations, not because we’re all doing the same thing, but because we’re all doing different things that are connected in really important ways.”
In early 2019, the Just Transition Fund began reaching out to its grantees and other partners across the country.
“We asked, ‘What could we achieve if we bring communities together to advocate for what they know will work and what they need at the federal level?’” says Binko. “We realized pretty quickly there was something to this idea.”After leading development of a draft platform for several months, the Just Transition Fund convened approximately 40 local leaders from around the country in the nation’s capital in June 2019. The groups’ members then took to the field to seek further local input. This led to a series of regional meetings as well as extensive communications with community heads to ensure that the final product was as informed as possible.
“If folks in the White House or on Capitol Hill are going to serve Appalachian coal communities, they need to know which policies to pursue,” says Appalachian Voices’ Senior Legislative Representative Thom Kay. “They need to know what is working, and what is still needed. I’m hopeful that the platform helps provide decision-makers with concrete policy ideas. But more than that, I hope it reminds them that people in coal communities need to be involved in big-picture discussions about their future.”
Binko states that now is the time to address economic shifts on a national level, and that the platform plays an important role in elevating the voices of those most affected by the decline of the coal industry.
“All of us together are thinking comprehensively on what these coal communities need, on everything from economic development strategies to workforce programs to infrastructure needs,” says Binko.
Employment in the coal industry has been falling for decades, especially in Appalachia.
“We’re really looking at a 70-year decline in the industry, which took [Kentucky] from 75,000 coal jobs in 1949 to about 20,000 jobs in 2012,” says Hille.
Hille states that the sudden coal job losses at the start of the decade are “a tragedy that sits on top of a disaster,” with the disaster being the ongoing economic distress of communities that relied on the coal industry.
“Now those were good-paying jobs, they were some of the best-paying jobs in the region,” says Hille. “But there were fewer of them every year, so it was doing less to contribute to the overall economy.”
The BlueGreen Alliance’s Jason Walsh states that federal unemployment safeguards are “wholly inadequate to the task” of supporting people in deindustrialized areas.
“The system was not set up to deal with thousands and thousands of dislocated coal miners,” says Walsh.
In West Virginia, the coal industry’s decline has led to a shrinking population. It is one of four states that has fewer people now than at the beginning of the decade, according to U.S. Census data.
“We hear so often from young people in West Virginia that they feel like they have to leave to be able to access economic opportunities, that too many young people feel like they can’t be whatever they want to be in West Virginia,” says Generation West Virginia Executive Director Natalie Roper. The nonprofit organization works to make the Mountain State an attractive place to live for young professionals and is part of the planning team for the National Economic Transition platform.
“It’s important that we are diversifying the economy and prioritizing strategies to expand upon new and emerging sectors so that young people — and all people — feel like they have choices between careers, and that they’re not feeling like they have to choose between a fulfilling career and life or staying in their home communities,” Roper adds.
Groups involved in creating the platform have emphasized the need for workforce development and training programs for communities affected by coal closures. These programs would ideally not just be for former coal miners, as a coal mine or plant shutting down can significantly affect other area businesses and the local tax base.
According to Roper, Generation West Virginia is particularly focused on workforce development.
“I think what’s been important throughout our conversations about this platform has been the importance of local leadership,” says Roper. “Ensuring that communities are a part of defining their own futures, defining which sectors and what new economies are important for them to be building up, and for that to be performed by and led by the communities themselves is so important.”
After an area is scoured for coal, the land left behind is often barren.
“We want to encourage more federal investment into projects and programs and efforts that are aligned with this just transition and recreating viable communities and livelihoods for people,” says Hille.
Many of the groups involved agree that investing in these locations is key, through coal site remediation as well as support for community-led infrastructure development.
Many coal communities in Appalachia and the rest of the country contend with contaminated water or scarce water access.
Marie Gladue with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a nonprofit tribal environmental organization that is involved in planning the platform, spoke on poor infrastructure in the Navajo Nation.
“Power lines were built over communities on Navajo land, taking electricity and water to cities across the Southwest, while thousands in the Navajo Nation remained with no electricity access or water,” Gladue told the Navajo-Hopi Observer in November.
In November, the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western United States shut down after 46 years. Nearly all 750 employees of the Navajo Generating Station, located in the Navajo Nation near Page, Ariz., were Native Americans. Most of the workers were laid off save for a fraction who are staying on to complete land reclamation efforts.
The Navajo Nation suffers from high unemployment, with an unemployment rate of 47 percent as of 2016, according to the tribal government. Federal data shows a rate of 4.8 percent for the United States at the time. The Navajo Generating Station’s deactivation, combined with the closure of Peabody Energy’s nearby Kayenta Mine that supplied the station, is a massive financial blow to the Navajo and Hopi tribes.
More than 80 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s income, approximately $12 million, was coal-related. The Hopi are considering options such as mineral and land development and tribal gaming. Navajo Nation leaders told the Arizona Republic that the tribal government is taking an estimated loss of $30 million to $50 million in 2020, and that they will be utilizing government reserves to cover the shortfall and pursuing energy alternatives.
“We are looking to become the leader in renewable energy throughout the Southwest and Indian Country,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told the Arizona Republic in November.
Nicole Horseherder is the executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, one of several nonprofit tribal environmental organizations on the platform’s planning team. For a just transition, Horseherder states that the Navajo will need support from the governments and companies that profited from the tribe’s natural resources for years.
“We’re really under-represented and our situation is not as well-known, and so I think the platform is very important,” says Horseherder. “It’s going to help equalize transition support across all coal-impacted communities, and not just one area.”
After attending some of the regional planning meetings, MACED President Peter Hille reflects on how some of the issues facing formerly coal-reliant communities in Appalachia relate to those in the Navajo Nation.
“What we’ve seen for decades in Appalachia is what we’re seeing in real time in the closure just last year of the Kayenta Mine and the Navajo Generating Station,” says Hille. “Outside of the immediate area where those mining jobs are, there’s widespread unemployment and difficult economic circumstances on those reservations.”
“[Coal] jobs have provided good livelihoods for the people that have them, but it’s a small number in a large region,” he adds.
Horseherder states that working closely with other coal communities has provided valuable insight.
“A lot of the steps that we’re just now taking, they’ve done it already years before us,” says Horseherder. “Where they’re at now is definitely a blueprint that we’re looking at so that we know what’s coming down the line for us. It’s really helping us plan a little better.”
Appalachian Voices’ Thom Kay states that it was interesting to learn about coal-fired power plant closures from other regions of the country.
“In Appalachia, the focus is so often on miners,” says Kay. “But many local economies have been dependent on coal plants and the relatively well-paying jobs they’ve provided. Nearby communities also dealt with decades of air and water pollution, and are often left with expensive environmental cleanup liabilities. The good news is that many of the economic solutions that can work for communities facing coal plant closures overlap with solutions in coal mining communities.”
The National Economic Transition platform is expected to be released in late winter. For updates and links to the platform when it is available, visit this story online at appvoices.org/voice-national-transition.