Recently, I took a road trip down to West Virginia to learn more about mountaintop removal coal mining and tour the remains of a retired mine on Kayford Mountain, located in a rural area outside of Charleston, W.V. Mountaintop removal, as the name suggests, is a process of coal mining that involves rigging explosives to a mountaintop and blowing it up so coal companies can extract threads of coal hidden in the interior of the mountain. The results are devastating to the local ecology and topography, reducing the richly biodiverse area and leveling the mountain to a barren rocky landscape. My commitment to environmental activism guided my journey to see the horrible effects of coal mining firsthand, yet, my experience was not exactly what I had pictured it would be.

In fact, while the lifeless remains of the mountain itself were enough to depress anyone, it was the interaction with the local community that moved me more. The environmental implications of mountaintop removal coal mining, and coal mining in general, are well documented, however, the more insidious effect is the economic burden placed on the people living in these communities. West Virginia is a state that is somewhat dependent on coal for its economy. Coal built the state and its ongoing slow demise has devastated rural communities. The trip highlighted just how influential coal is to the people of West Virginia. Growing up in Michigan, I felt strong parallels between the coal mines of West Virginia and the auto factories of Flint and Detroit. In both cases local communities are wholly dependent on a singular employer and eventually are left with no viable safety net.

While on Kayford Mountain, my group encountered a local who lived on the mountain and coincidentally had a close personal tie to Michigan. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he told us in his thick Appalachian accent that he lived and worked in Flint for the better part of 25 years. He said that when he was young, the coal mine in his town shut down, so he packed up and headed north to work in the auto industry. He worked at a factory in Flint doing metal work until General Motors shut down some of its operations. He moved back to West Virginia and has been living on the mountain ever since.

The connection between Appalachia and the Midwest runs deeper than I could have thought. Larry Gibson, founder of the nonprofit Keeper of the Mountains, responsible for giving tours of mountaintop removal on Kayford Mountain, actually spent most of his life in northern Ohio. When GM shut down its plant in the 1980s, Gibson decided to move back to West Virginia and live in an area that his family had owned for a generation. Gibson’s culture and heritage are rooted deeply in a mix of Midwestern and Appalachian values of hard, honest work. While on the tour, Bill DePaulo, an environmental lawyer and member of Keeper of the Mountains, told stories about what inspired Gibson to start the nonprofit. Back before mountaintop removal coal mining started, Kayford was the lowest point in the surrounding peaks of the Appalachian Mountains; however, coal companies stripped down the surrounding summits and the once beautiful and rich landscape became flat and dead. When coal companies tried to buy Gibson’s land, his charitable organization instead managed to designate his property as a public park via a land trust agreement, thus protecting it from further mountaintop removal and allowing public tours.

As one might expect, this angered the coal companies operating in the area, and they did everything in their power to scare Gibson away. According to DePaulo, when Keeper of the Mountains first started operating on Kayford Mountain, coal companies would send people to intimidate tourists and environmentalists by shooting into the air or emptying a revolver clip into vacant trailers. While on the tour, I walked past a trailer that still had bullet holes scattered throughout the exterior. Sometimes the intimidation turned to actual violence. DePaulo told a story of how one morning, Gibson had woken up to find his dog had been killed and strung up on his front porch. While there was no note, the timing and circumstances heavily suggests that someone from the coal companies was responsible.

While absolutely tragic, Gibson’s story is not an isolated incident. Coal and fossil fuel industries have a proven history of intimidation and violence, and have played an active role in spreading misinformation about their practices. In the 1920s, coal companies created an army to fight a movement of miners wanting to unionize, resulting in what historians have coined the coal wars. Their size and checkbooks give them absolute power over their workers, residents and politicians. When talking with DePaulo about the politics of the region, he stated aptly that “there is no Republican or Democratic Party in West Virginia — just the coal party.”

A pillar of President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was saving coal. As things stand today, he has completely failed to do so. The coal industry likes to propagate the idea that renewables and environmental standards are responsible for the closure of mines, but this is a gross oversimplification of the problem. Natural gas is about 60 percent more efficient than the oldest coal plants in terms of electricity generation, and is far more cost effective, making it coal’s biggest remaining threat. As for the rapid loss of jobs in the region, coal companies themselves are also to blame. While miners’ employment has been rapidly decreasing, overall coal production has remained relatively constant primarily due to mechanization. It is evident that the coal industry and lobbyists want to frame environmentalists as the enemy of miners to cover up their own influence in their misfortune. The fact of the matter remains: Coal is a dying industry.

Driving through the mountains and seeing the burdens firsthand reminded me that our rhetoric surrounding the transition away from coal should change as well. The negative effects of coal on human health, from both mining and burning, in addition to the environmental implications, are well-proven. If we are to seriously make any progress in limiting the effects of climate change, the transition away from coal and fossil fuels must be swift. Often we talk about environmental justice for the communities that are most affected but have the least power or capacity to do anything about it. This needs to apply to the forgotten coal miners of Appalachia as well. Can we blame unemployed miners for wanting to keep their jobs, put food on the table or send their kids to school? They too are victims and deserve justice in the fight against fossil fuel. The blame for their circumstances falls on the politicians, Republican and Democratic alike, who allow fossil fuel money to influence their decisions and who contribute to incendiary misinformation campaigns.

Organizations, nonprofits and startups have opened in the region, dedicated to training coal miners in new, more applicable skills for a modern economy. The renewables sector has already been outpacing coal in total jobs as well as job growth, providing an opportunity to train unemployed coal miners in wind turbine and solar production, as well as installation. West Virginians have a deep-rooted cultural connection to energy — many talk proudly about Appalachia’s history of powering the nation just as Midwesterners talk about the automotive industry — and this provides an opportunity for them to hold onto that culture while helping the environment instead of harming it.

While programs like these are beneficial, there is still much work to be done in order to help struggling communities. Most important among these is the need to keep big fossil fuel money out of the politicians’ pockets, at the local, state and national level, who actively work against the transition to renewables. Promising the coal industry will come back is deceitful and damaging, and only prolongs the inevitable. As long as politicians continue to accept lobbying money and influence from the fossil fuel industry, they are only going to continue to hurt the very people they are elected to represent.

Timothy Spurlin can be reached at timrspur@umich.edu.

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