Coal’s Influence on the Appalachian Region of America
Allison Doverspike, Gannon University
Abstract: I have decided to study the cumulative effects of the coal industry on Appalachia because fossil fuels are wildly controversial in today’s environmentally conscious society. The global consequences of burning fossil fuels are currently a hot topic; but coal’s impact on its regional extractors and producers is not as popularly known. Since the American coal industry is primarily rooted in the eastern United States, I aim to discover the hidden connections that exist between coal and the Appalachian region.
My research paper will center around the question, “What are the effects of the coal industry on the Appalachian region of America?” The coal industry includes all elements involved in the extraction and processing of coal. In order to thoroughly examine the relationship between coal and Appalachia, I will break my research question into three main subtopics. The first area of focus is, “What impact does this major industry have on the region’s economic and political scenes?” The second is, “How is coal intrinsically tied to the social views and values of rural Appalachia?” The third topic is, “What are the environmental and health risks associated with coal?” Together, these subtopics cover a large range of categories and thus supply a wide view of coal’s significance in Appalachia.
The usage of fossil fuels is greatly controversial in today’s environmentally conscious American society. Political and social pressures sweep the nation, aiming to replace carbon-based fuels with greener energy sources. As one of America’s most popular fossil fuels, coal is receiving a large portion of this attention and scrutiny. However, the conversation surrounding the coal industry is largely discussed in a global or national context rather than on the local level. The regional effects of the United States’ coal industry are most evident in the Appalachian Mountains where coal production is most prevalent.
The coal industry and the development of Appalachia have been intrinsically tied for decades. Commercial coal mining first appeared in the eastern U.S. in the late 19th century and continues on to this day. This region utilizes both underground and surface (strip mining and mountaintop removal, MTR) mining techniques to extract bituminous coal from the earth. The great scale of Appalachian mining has contributed to its social and industrial development, establishing many communities and local economies.
However, the industry was hit hard in the early 2000s when the electric power section turned to natural gas as a cleaner and cheaper alternative. Around this time, increased restrictions were placed on the coal industry by external organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Today, great instability still persists in the Appalachian Mountains, adding to the region’s political and social polarization.
This essay begins by discussing coal’s economic influence on Appalachia. It then describes the environmental and health repercussions of mining coal. Subsequently, it explores the political and demographic trends exhibited by Appalachia. Lastly, it concludes by investigating the social views found within and stereotypes surrounding this region. This essay will primarily explore the intrinsic connections that exist between the American coal industry and Appalachia. While fossil fuel’s current controversy often reflects upon them critically, coal cannot be characterized as entirely negative. The coal industry has both positive and negative effects that have left their lasting mark on Appalachia.
There is a complex relationship that exists between the national usage of coal and the regional economies of Appalachia. On a larger scale, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the nation meets 19% of its annual energy demands by consuming 539 million tons of coal (“Coal Explained”; “Electricity Explained”). However, due to ongoing transitions in the national energy sector, the demand for coal fluctuates, creating instabilities in coal dependent economies. Local economies thrive when the demand for coal is increased; the prevalence of high paying coal jobs increases and, in turn, offers support of other businesses. Still, the current national demand for coal is low and regional economies are suffering from a lack of revenue and employment.
The overall reduced demand for coal has drastically decreased Appalachian production rates in recent years. In fact, according to a study conducted by West Virginia University, production levels have fallen almost 45 percent between 2005 and 2015 alone, from 1.1 billion to 897 billion short tons (Bowen et al. 7). This decreased demand is mostly the result of stricter environmental and carbon emissions restrictions and the prevalence of alternative fuel sources, like natural gas. Additionally, this lowered demand, coupled with the large domestic supply of coal, has driven down the profitability of the fuel source. Therefore, the coal economies of Appalachia are trapped within a period of poverty.
In general, Appalachia is much less economically stable than the rest of America, exhibiting higher poverty and unemployment rates. For example, the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises states that Appalachia’s 2014 poverty and unemployment rates were 19.7% and 6.5% respectively versus America’s lower 15.6% and 6.2% (“Appalachian Poverty”). Appalachia’s economic depression is not caused by a singular factor; rather, it is the amalgamation of a variety of influences such as natural resource reliance and lower per-capita income. First, natural resource industries can be fairly unstable due to resource depletion, market price changes, and vastly fluctuating supply and demand levels. Second, high paying jobs are infrequent in Appalachia due to outmigration and decreased industrial activity resulting from America’s shift from an industrial to consumeristic nation. Mining towns, however, are even worse off than the rest of Appalachia.
While coal mining communities have the great potential to be economically successful, industrial challenges keep them submerged in poverty. A West Virginia University study finds that, currently, coal towns are more likely to have higher unemployment, working-age outmigration, and poverty rates than communities without mining activities (Bowen et al. 23, 30, 36). However, these recent unfortunate trends are only the products of decreases in coal production due to the lack of demand. A decade-long study of economic and population changes in Appalachia shows that increased “coal production…lower[s] the unemployment and poverty rates while increasing per capita income” (Kratzer 178). Therefore, communities with successful coal mining activities are generally more stable than Appalachian towns that lack coal mining. Therefore, until the nation sees radical growth in the demand for coal, mining towns will remain poor.
Appalachia’s economic destitution presently has no one clear resolution, despite being debated for decades. Traditionally, outside intervention and governmentally funded approaches have been used to stimulate economic growth, the most notable attempt seen in President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty. Today, however, the latest attempts to combat Appalachian poverty have shifted to a more localized approach. Furthermore, The Journal of Appalachian Studies claims that external involvement is not the solution to regional need; rather, this poverty is better combatted through “holistic approach[es]” that “allow…for the integration of cultural, social, economic, and environmental policies through close attention to needs at the local level” (Bilbrey et al. 17). Similarly, this regionalized approach is supported by Holtkamp and Weaver’s 2016 study which found positive connections between Appalachia’s general economic health and its social capital and place identity. They determined that outside aid is only theoretically helpful and internal movements, like small-business ventures and community unification activities, are most likely the answer to stopping Appalachia’s poverty (74-5). There is a path forward from the economic slump left in the wake of the coal industry’s collapse.
In addition to shaping local economies, the coal industry can also have a large impact on environmental health. Coal has been linked to a number of environmental concerns and health conditions. Most notably, the U.S. Energy Information Administration states that the burning of coal can raise atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, trapping greenhouse gasses and contributing to the rate of global climate change; also, coal combustion releases sulfur dioxide which can cause acid rain (“Coal Explained”). Nonetheless, responsible mining practices and clean coal technologies—like carbon capture and sulfur scrubbers—are capable of minimizing ecological damages. Coal remains a vastly controversial fuel in the global energy discussion.
One of coal’s main environmental concerns is its potential to cause drinking water contamination and stream pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, contaminated drinking water can result in a myriad of human health conditions like “chronic toxicity, anemia, cancer, liver, kidney, and intestinal damage” (“Potential Well Water Contaminants and Their Impacts”). Coal’s main threats to water health are slurry and coal combustion waste (CCW). David Holzman describes slurry as a liquid byproduct of coal processing that can contaminate water after leaking through coal seams out of holding ponds or mine shafts (478). Similarly, another article describes CCW as the ash that results from burning coal in electric generation plants. Over 100 million tons of CCW are produced per year, and while 49% is recycled, the rest has the potential to end up in holding ponds and leach into water reserves; this contaminated drinking water can be dangerous to humans because it may contain unsafe amounts of arsenic, chromium, lead, cadmium, selenium, and mercury (Manuel 500). In order to protect public safety, both slurry and CCW are regulated by the EPA.
Another ecological danger associated with coal is the possibility of air pollution. Coal mining activities, especially mountaintop removal mining (MTR mining), can result in increased atmospheric particulate matter. MTR mining, a type of surface excavating, is more likely to result in air pollution because it uncovers coal seams by using explosives and large machinery to cleave off the tops of mountains and hills; these displaced materials become airborne or settle into the valleys. A case in point is a 2012 study of West Virginia communities that found mining towns demonstrate higher levels of air particulate matter and corresponding human health conditions like heart, respiratory, and kidney diseases than non-mining communities (Kurth et al. 410). This study illuminates the underlying connection between human and environmental health and coal mining.
If unregulated, coal mining has the potential to be incredibly detrimental to the environment, but new combustion technologies make coal a viable energy source. The U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970, Paris Agreement of 2015, and other general restrictions from the EPA require industrial emissions to be minimized. Therefore, coal-powered electric generation plants are equipped to reduce dangerous pollutants from coal combustion. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that power plants limit carbon dioxide emissions through carbon capture techniques and sulfur emissions by flue gas desulfurization equipment, or sulfur scrubbers (“Coal Explained”). The World Nuclear Association (WNA) explains that, during carbon capture, carbon emissions are collected and then stored safely in permanent underground places; this method is highly efficient but relatively expensive. WNA also reports that sulfur scrubbers are highly efficient as they are able to reduce sulfur emissions by up to 97% (“'Clean Coal' Technologies, Carbon Capture & Sequestration”). Together, carbon capture techniques and sulfur scrubbers, along with a myriad of other ecologically preventative measures, can minimize coal combustion’s environmental footprint.
Understandably, since coal is so environmentally controversial, the regulatory organizations that oversee its risks to nature and human health are viewed with differing levels of support. The three main guiding agencies are the EPA, the OSHA, and the MSHA. The EPA focuses on the environmental repercussions of mining while the OSHA and the MSHA are subdivisions of the U.S. Department of Labor and oversee the health and safety of coal workers. Public opinion pertaining to these organizations is largely governed by an individual’s cultural location, or personal background. For example, mine proprietors and those whose families rely on jobs within the coal industry might be more likely to favor the coal industry’s growth over greater levels of restrictions. Contrastingly, people removed from coal communities or from less industrial backgrounds will probably support greater levels of restrictions in the name of environmental and worker protection. Furthermore, while neither system of thought is completely infallible, each is vindicated by the personal truths and priorities of those who hold them.
While the coal industry’s economic and environmental significance can be clearly observed, its influence on Appalachian politics is much less obvious. Appalachia, like most other American regions, exhibits specific voting patterns; but it is difficult to make definitive connections between these political preferences and the local dominance of coal. Still, by examining national demographics and those prevalent within Appalachia, one can better understand the political climate and ideological beliefs of the territory.
Overall, Appalachia is composed primarily of rural districts and tends to vote conservatively, favoring Republican candidates over their Democratic counterparts. According to Oshnock’s article published by Appalachian State University, Appalachia has a fair amount of influence on national politics, controlling 90 important Electoral votes and 14 competitive Senate seats. Furthermore, the source also reports that, in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won all but 10 of Appalachia’s 420 counties (2-3). This landslide win is partially explained by the fact that Trump’s pro-natural resource agenda appealed to many struggling industrial communities in Appalachia; thus, they offered him their political support. Appalachia is leaning very far to the right, creating a sense of regional political polarization.
Despite its seeming political separation, Appalachia should not be seen as being disparate from the rest of the U.S. In fact, the remarkably distinctive voting trends seen in this area can largely be explained by national demographic trends. This idea is supported by a study conducted by Bickel and Brown who insist that “Appalachia is not a perfectly homogeneous area” and its “county level Appalachian voting patterns can be accounted for…by…conventional demographic measures” like family makeup, income, education, ethnicity, and the ruralness or urbanity of a county (100, 114).
Appalachia’s specific demographics culminate to form the ideological support necessary to promote its Republican voting pattern. First, Bickel and Brown connect conventional family structure—normally two parent households with children—to conservative values; they propose, “The influence of traditional family values is real and…very much pro-Republican” (113). Second, the high rate of poverty and low household income push Appalachia to vote red; Oshnock bluntly states, “Economic anxiety causes people to vote more Republican” (8). Third, education impacts voting, and Appalachia is less educated than the rest of the U.S.; this is seen in a 2015 survey which found that only 22.7% of people in mining counties and 22.5% of those in non-mining counties have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher while the national average is 30.4% (Bowen et al. 37). Bickel and Brown suggest that the more educated an individual is, the more likely they are to align with the Democratic party (112). Fourth, the lack of vote dispersal in Appalachia is also affected by its limited ethnic diversity; Bickel and Brown report, “82[%] of the 410 Appalachian counties have ethnic minority group memberships of less than 10[%], and only 8[%] have ethnic minority group memberships greater than 20[%]” (113). Fifth, Oshnock proposes that Appalachia’s rural makeup drives the communal desire for “a smaller government and more equality of opportunity,” an objective that aligns perfectly with the views of the Republican party (10). Overall, these five demographic indicators help explain Appalachia’s political polarization.
After examining Appalachia’s political scene on a regionalized demographic level, it is important to consider coal’s specific influence. The coal industry is much less prevalent than it once was in Appalachia, and only employs about 5% of rural Appalachia according to a report titled “Housing in Central Appalachia” (3). However, the ideological goals of the coal industry tend to agree with those of the Republican party, favoring small government and capitalistically based economic development. Interestingly, these coal-driven conservative values are spreading across political borders between parties. A case in point, Oshnock observes, “In elections since 2000, Democratic mining and distressed counties have…seen…[big] shifts towards the Republican Party” (Oshnock 49). This transition to Republican values is also most likely explained by the dire economic situations of these communities. In their eyes, outside economic intervention and governmental restrictions on the coal industry have already failed Appalachia.
On the other hand, some Appalachians—mostly those who do not rely on coal—and outside environmental advocates plead for increased governmental intervention. “Housing in Central Appalachia” explains that the ecologically destructive practice of MTR mining is causing tension in “courts, Congress, and the public press” (4). Likewise, Rosner suggests that there is an “ongoing legal battle between ‘Big Coal,’ local community action groups, and allies in the…[government] administration to limit the environmental destruction and health impacts wrought by coal mining” (650). The greatly controversial nature of coal makes it a hot-button political and social issue.
Now that the economic, environmental, and political impacts of coal have been fully explained, it is appropriate to discuss how the resource affects Appalachia’s social climate. The controversy that surrounds carbon-based fuels is not absent from Appalachian society. Coal mining is viewed as a birthright and economic life source by some and an ecological and social disaster by others. Despite the prevalence of natural resource industries and homologous political makeup, Appalachia is still a region composed of individuals and should not be overgeneralized.
Unfortunately, the national social perception of Appalachia is overwhelmingly negative and often grossly exaggerated. Bickel and Brown expound upon the idea, asserting outsiders’ view Appalachia as being dominated by “social and cultural dysfunction and self-defeating irrationality” (100). The authors go on to insist these stereotypes are inaccurate and unjustified because Appalachia is more than a mountainous backcountry ruled by “a ‘God, guts, and guns!’ right-wing populism that blinds” it to its “own best interests” (99). While it is probably true that some Appalachians fall within stereotypical descriptions, the region should not be branded as being full of political and social extremists who possess no capacity for environmental concerns. Appalachia is not any different from the rest of the U.S. in that its population is a mix of demographic and ideological factors, as explained previously when discussing political trends.
If Appalachia’s stereotypes rely on unfounded overgeneralizations, then one cannot conclusively state the existence of a widespread Appalachian culture. This idea is excellently seen in Ludke and Obermiller’s 2014 book, Appalachian Health and Well-Being, where they suggest that
it is difficult to conceive of an accurate statement of “culture” for some 25 million people living in 13 states, especially given the annual turnover rate in the population through in- and out- migration. This is not to say local cultures do not exist, particularly in rural Appalachia, but they are usually belief and behavior sets tied to specific places and are not descriptive of everyone in the region (qtd in Obermiller and Maloney 105).
In other words, while specific cultures may persist in geographically localized areas, Appalachia, as a whole, cannot be viewed as possessing a shared culture. Therefore, Cooper et al. concludes that the exaggerated “culture of ignorance…[and] irresponsibility” often associated with Appalachia is stemmed from myth rather than factual evidence (26).
The negative external perception of and current economic depression in Appalachia are resulting in population loss. Furthermore, the Housing Assistance Council reports that Appalachia exhibits less population growth than the rest of the U.S.; between 2000 and 2010, the national population increased by 9.7% while that of Appalachia only exhibited 6.5% growth (2). Furthermore, this trend is also seen in Heinemann and Hadler’s study of the 2000 Census because “about half of the individuals born in West Virginia do not reside in their home state anymore” (86). This massive outmigration is mimicked throughout Appalachia with people leaving their homelands in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere. A West Virginia University study finds that the working-age populations of coal dependent communities have decreased drastically since the early 2000s while non-mining communities have experienced moderate working-age population gain (Bowen et al. 29). With the national drop in demand, modern mining communities are simply unable to offer enough gainful employment to support a large working population.
Given the lack of socio-economic opportunities in Appalachia, especially in coal towns, why do people choose to stay? The answer is simple: loyalty and pride. The people of Appalachia are just that—people. Therefore, they have friends, families, and emotional connections to their ways of life and the places they call home. In their paper “Resisting Economic Opportunities? An Inquiry into the Reasons and Motivations of Individuals Who Stay in a Socio-Economically Deprived Area,” Heinemann and Hadler find that Appalachians often stay because they have either “found excellent jobs in their home state and have no incentive to leave” or possess “strong family ties and local identities” (102). Appalachia may be economically downtrodden and stereotyped as undesirable, but it is still a socially viable place to call home.
Many Appalachians have a strong sense of community pride and an intrinsic connection with nature. Cooper et al. finds that “educated people, older people, and people who have spent more time in the region are more likely to strongly identify with Appalachia” (38). Furthermore, in his essay, “Fifty Years of Change in Appalachia,” George Brosi reflects upon his own time serving on the Council of the Southern Mountains in Berea, Kentucky. Brosi maintains that Appalachia is founded on core values, a connection with the earth, and small businesses, including natural resource industries (8, 10). These community-based principles contribute to Appalachia’s humble—yet meaningful—way of living.
While this paper mainly focuses on coal’s impact on Appalachia’s economic, environmental, political, and social scenes, it is still important to view this energy source on a global level. Local effects are critical, but worldwide consequences hold greater magnitude. The coal industry is controversial because of ecological degrading emissions and production techniques. However, as seen in the earlier environmental discussion, these risks can be partially minimized by new combustion technologies and responsible mining practices. Still, the push for cleaner renewable energy is greatly affecting America’s coal industry. Coal may currently be responsible for producing a large quantity of the nation’s energy, but its future remains uncertain. The economic and social scenes of Appalachia greatly reflect the industry’s turbulence.
Appalachia’s long-standing connections with the coal industry have resulted in much of the region’s identity today. Coal’s future role in Appalachia may be uncertain, but its past importance cannot be understated. The coal industry’s impact cannot be characterized as entirely positive or negative; coal is linked to environmental hazards and economic instability, but it has also founded communities, made possible by the industrial revolution, and created a society of hard-working and industrious people. Like a dead monarch’s image stamped on a coin, “King Coal” has forever left its mark on Appalachia.
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