As the impacts of climate change intensify and elected officials heed the calls of political organizers and activists, the U.S. has shifted away from extractive fossil fuel industries and toward renewable energy sources. While this shift is important for the climate, it has had disastrous impacts on the economies, communities, and cultures in Appalachian regions where most of our coal is extracted.
Coal-dependent towns and regions are now forced to figure out seemingly opposing tasks at once: rebuild a vibrant, diversified Appalachian economy; preserve what Appalachian culture remains while supporting new cultural development; and ensure that Appalachians don’t have to leave home in order to secure good-paying jobs.
Local grassroots organizations see this moment as an opportunity for change. Though they have long encountered understandable resistance to the loss of local economies and ways of life, they have also helped to facilitate the cultural shifts that can guide the region toward a just transition and the structural interventions required to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy while providing good jobs. These organizations are working to not just replace coal, but to build stronger and healthier communities with economies that don’t exploit people or the planet.
“Let’s get back to the real Appalachia,” says Brandon Dennsion, the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development, an employment-based job training organization. “Being totally dependent on this one extractive industry is not really who we are,” Dennison says. “When we’re at our best in Appalachia, we’re actually very much in touch with our landscape. We have a vibrant culture and we take care of one another.
Appalachia, the mountainous region spanning 13 states from western Pennsylvania to Alabama, has long played host to a resource extraction economy. In the early 1800s, industries took advantage of the area for its timber, cutting trees and milling lumber to build up cities across the country. Industrial coal mining took off in the years following the Civil War. Jobs, production, and profits steadily increased until the 1950s, when corporations began to mechanize underground mining processes. Even while production continued to climb in the later part of the 20th century, jobs steadily decreased. Regulatory changes, an oil embargo that pushed up the price of coal, and the opening of new mines in Western states began a decades-long cycle of boom and bust.
Since then, coal-dependent communities have been at the mercy of multimillion dollar corporations that export this fossil fuel all over the world. “When the resources are hauled to the outside, the profits go with it,” says Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association, which advances a just transition through local business development. “Economists call it ‘the resources curse,’ in that, if you have a place with rich resources, it will almost inevitably over time become impoverished.”
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation creating the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal bureau tasked with understanding the economic needs of Appalachia to address widespread impoverishment. Nearly six decades later, the systemic socioeconomic issues plaguing coal mining towns have only snowballed. A $4 trillion infrastructure plan out of the Biden White House might signal a follow-up of federal support, but Appalachia must continue to contend with industry disinvestment.
Between 2005 and 2015, coal mining employment in the U.S. dropped by 27 percent, but in Central Appalachia the decrease was as much as 50 percent. These losses have not been felt equally across Appalachia, says John Deskins, an associate professor of economics at West Virginia University. And the aftershock of widespread joblessness precipitates other sociocultural challenges like drug addiction and depopulation.
While many Appalachians have left the region in search of better opportunities elsewhere, diluting, Deskins says, the rich culture of Appalachian food, music, and community, the impact of coal mining remains: Central Appalachian counties are some of the poorest in the nation, and the towns situated nearest to coal mines suffer extraordinarily high rates of lung cancer and cervical cancer. One study found that the risk of fetal birth defects for mothers living in mining areas was six times higher than that of mothers who smoked but didn’t live in mining areas.
People outside of Appalachia may celebrate a decreased reliance on coal, given its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The vilification of coal is not unwarranted: the highly combustible black rock is responsible for 30 percent of the United States’ electricity consumption and is also the single largest contributor to global climate change. Yet Hille argues that these critiques fail to realize that the exploitation of land has long gone hand in hand with the exploitation of people, community, and culture. “The challenges here are very real, but the people here did not create those challenges,” Hille says. “These are the result of systemic forces that were created from the outside and off [the backs of] the people here [who] are very dedicated to this place.”
In a country where employment is invariably linked with larger forces of classism and regionalism, demonizing coal has demonized Appalachian communities, drawing important conversations further from their focus: How can Appalachian coal country, rich with resources, make itself into a self-sustaining economic hub?
“Despite all of the challenges that we face, I think that there is a lot of belief in the future we can have,” Hille says, “and that belief is grounded in the people.”
In Appalachia, as with most places, the economy and the culture are intertwined. “It’s a generational thing. … That’s what’s keeping people here,” says Veronica Coptis, the executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, an organization based in western Pennsylvania. The organization helps communities organize against extractive industries and their impacts, and works to influence policy at the local level.
“It’s hard to build a new economy when the markets are broken and the communities are depopulated,” Hille says. “To think about building a new economy requires that we think about how to regenerate these places as communities where people can live, and will choose to live.”
A lot of that comes down to supporting communities and their small, local businesses. The Mountain Association offers loans to existing and startup businesses and organizations, supports their professional development, and helps them with energy savings through utility bill analysis and on-site solar assessments.
Dennison’s organization, Coalfield Development, creates employment and educational opportunities for Central Appalachians in order to build a sustainable economy that isn’t dependent on coal. Dennison realized that top-down organizations providing grants only to educational or job training opportunities were ignoring an important step in revitalization: “The problem is the best job training program in the world just isn’t that valuable if there aren’t a lot of good jobs in the community in the first place, for people to be trained for,” Dennison says.
Coalfield Development’s training model provides 33 hours of paid work each week, six hours of higher education, and three hours of personal development like mentorship or trauma education. The organization also revitalizes empty historic buildings in these communities, which have been turned into affordable housing, coffee shops, offices, restaurants, and farms.
Most importantly, all three of these organizations — the Center for Coalfield Justice, Coalfield Development, and the Mountain Association — are committed to building potential in their communities. “If we’re gonna win, we have to invest in the leaders here,” Coptis says. “We can’t actually pretend that the economy was working for everyone in our community when coal was in its heyday,” she adds. “This is an opportunity for us locally to ensure that we can start to make up for that exclusion of women’s labor [and] people of color, poor folks not being able to access economic mobility upwards in the community.”
“For the people that have grown up here and live here and are committed to staying here, it’s actually about an intersectional lens,” Coptis says. “It’s not just about jobs. It’s not just about the taxes. It’s about ‘How do we bring back the sense of community?’”
The Just Transition Fund is on a mission to create economic opportunity for the frontline communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from coal. JTF is guided by a belief in the power of communities, supporting locally-led solutions and helping elevate the voices of transition leaders like the Center for Coalfield Justice, Coalfield Development, and Mountain Association.