To the Editor:
I was born in Letcher County in Jenkins. My grandfather (he died of black lung) and his brothers were coal miners who lived and raised their families in coal camp houses without indoor plumbing, shopped at the company stores, and had to grow their own food to survive. My own family left southeastern Kentucky in 1963 so my father could find work. We moved to Virginia and then Florida before returning in the early ‘70s to Whitesburg where I finished high school.
After graduating high school, I worked on strip mines in Letcher and Perry counties in the Seventies and early Eighties, and I lived there into the Nineties. As a native eastern Kentuckian – one who’s worked in mining and industries peripheral to the mining industry — I am embarrassed for anyone from Kentucky or, more specifically, eastern Kentucky, who has fallen for the lies or believes there really exists a “War on Coal.”
Anyone with any experience or knowledge of history in the region knows coal has always been boom or bust, a cycle established over a century of coal operations. There have been prosperous times (the coal boom of the early Seventies, when Pike County had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the nation) and several mini-booms before and since.
However, more often have come the extended periods of “ bust,” where long periods of unemployment, deprivation, “on the dole,” and out-migration to places where jobs can be found the norm. All of those symptoms eastern Kentucky has experienced before and since President Lyndon Johnson visited Mr. Fletcher in Martin County when he declared the War on Poverty in 1964.
A coal miner is a carpenter when the mines are closed or if forced leaves “home” as did my family (it’s always home no matter how far you go away from the hills) to find work.
What this all means is “Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23” didn’t just happen since 2009 because Barak Obama was elected president – that path to Ohio and on to Detroit, or similar roads south and west, was used for decades before he entered office. It was written about in such novels as Harriet Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker, in song by Dwight Yoakam and in Harry Caudill’s many books about the negative impact relying solely on coal could have on the region and the political power coal wields in the Commonwealth. Many factors affect that pattern of boom and bust, and today’s economic problems are the result, exacerbated by the Great Recession.
Here’s a dose of reality: When George W. Bush came into office in 2001 there were 654 coal fired plants in this nation – and when he left office in 2009 there were 595. Bush’s War on Coal? When Mitch McConnell came into office three decades ago, there were almost 70,000 jobs in the coal industry nationally – now there is less than one-third that number. McConnell’s War on Coal?
Go back a little further to the CBS documentary “Christmas in Appalachia” in 1965 when, about 13 minutes into the video, newsman Charles Kuralt asked a storeowner in Letcher County about jobs and unemployment in the area. Why were so many without jobs, Kuralt asked? The storeowner, seen giving credit to customers so they could survive, replied it was “machines” — the industry didn’t need as many workers. That was in 1965, and it’s only become worse for miners since with mountaintop removal, longwall miners and the like.
Let’s talk about those power plants McConnell claims he is worried about. Some of them were and are 80 years old, and closed through attrition or because other forms of energy have become more available and less expensive. Natural gas was over $15 per million BTU in 2005, and today it’s about $4 per million BTU. But then there may not be a market for the product. Arch Coal Inc. in eastern Kentucky laid off hundreds of miners this year and closed operations because of a glut in the metallurgical coal market. Even as mine owners complained about the EPA, they were closing operating mines. Obama’s War on Coal?
The need for someone to blame is perhaps natural — and Republicans and Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul are quite willing to point to President Obama. What Republicans, Mitch and Rand are not so willing to do is be honest with Kentuckians. Time, technology, market forces, and other forms of energy are competing with coal. That’s reality, not the War on Coal myth manufactured by the industry and marketed by Republicans.
If Kentuckians fall for those lies this year, they will have only themselves to blame for the consequences of the November election and Kentucky’s time in the desert will be extended.