Building bridges in coal country

Systemic stories

Gidi Grinstein

08 August 2017

The following article has been adapted from the original by Gideon Grinstein—a participant of LQ’s Future Stewards initiative to meet a series of climate change goals by 2020.. Senior leaders from private, public and civil organisations spent three days in the heart of coal country, exploring the connection between personal, organisational and systemic transformation. 

Last month I found myself in Appalachia – often referred to as Coal Country – where the crisis facing American society is starkly visible. I was there for my own work at the Reut Group, visiting the city of Welch in McDowell County, West Virginia. Once a Democrat district, McDowell voted a record 91.5% for Trump in the primaries and a little over 74% in the November 2016 elections.

"Don't know anyone who goes to Welch," said Rickey, who drove us 2.5 hours into the mountains from Roanoke. He was eager to leave before darkness, and when we drove through the centre of town, it was easy to see why.

Welch was once a thriving coal town, so busy that traffic jams were a daily problem. Today, it has an eerie wasteland atmosphere, decimated by the mechanisation of coal, cheaper foreign imports, and, as many of the locals maintain, the rise of renewable energy.

McDowell Street, Welch, in 1946 (left), versus 2015 (right). In the past few years, authorities have demolished 5,000 homes left to decay by absentee landlords.

The city once known as ‘little NYC’ for its fluctuating population and economy, is now home to roughly 2,500 people. Over half its children are raised by grandparents, uncles and aunts, with West Virginia having the highest rate of overdose deaths from opioids. But behind these depressing statistics we found inspiring individuals who are rebuilding the community.

We met first with a remarkable local family who run a food bank and an agricultural greenhouse start-up. Bob and Linda McKinney, along with their son Joel, feed 1,800 people a month (and clothe many of them) on an annual budget of just $25,000. Joel served five years in the US Navy. He told us he came back to Welch "because someone needs to step up for the community."

Bob (left), Linda (right), and Joel (back) McKinney feed 1,800 people a month at their food bank. 

Next, we got together with Mayor Reba Honaker. Elected aged 67, she’s a former teacher, housewife, flower shop owner and cancer survivor who has lived here all her life. She’s busy suing big pharma for its distribution of addictive medication. And, with other mayors in the area, she’s determined to win.

Gideon and a colleague in the office of Mayor Reba Honaker (right). 

One of our final visits was with Craig Snow, who runs Warrior Creek Development. Originally from California, he served USAID around the world, and eventually relocated to Welch to serve his home country. He’s trying to revitalize the community by working with young people who commit to a programme of construction work, skill-building and college-certified degree study.

A Warrior Creek Development sign (left) with Craig (far right) and his crew. 

The thing that ties everybody we met together, beyond their mission to restore Welch, is coal. Here, coal is more than just a profession – it is central to people’s identity. We met families who are second and third generation coal people, with many past and present family members in the industry.

Chad Riffe (left) thinks of Welch as “the safest place in the world.” He has worked in the coalmines for 29 years, and plans to continue -- at least until he has put both of his daughters through college. 

Take Bob and Linda McKinney, the couple who now run the local food bank. Bob worked in the mines for decades, as did Linda’s father and grandfather before him. They took pride in this dangerous manual work.

It also paid well. A miner today makes $30 an hour ($72,000 pa). Bob was making $96,000 when he retired. His nice home cost him $80,000 (it’s now worth a quarter of that). In other words, a miner used to be able to buy a home on a year’s worth of wages. Prosperity continued while coal was king, but more recently the vulnerability of these communities has been exposed.

It now takes three people to do the work that was done, some 30 years ago, by 10. We visited a coal mine operated by just 15 men, divided into two shifts. I must admit I felt slightly apprehensive as the lift descended the mine shaft, but the miners soon put us at ease.

One of them, Chad Riffe, told us he thinks of Welch as “the safest place in the world.” He has mined coal for 29 years, and plans to continue -- at least until he has put both of his daughters through college.

Technology is the major job-eliminating factor here, and many locals we spoke to know the trend won’t be reversed. But they do think coal will always be needed, and believe that there will be an opportunity to grow the industry.

Replacing coal with clean energy makes perfect sense in order to preserve our natural resources and the people that depend on them for generations to come.But when you spend time with people whose lives are the West Virginian coal industry, you start to appreciate a different set of consequences of quitting fossil fuels -- one which takes an immediate toll on families and communities. And you understand why West Virginians voted in record numbers for a candidate who pledged to give them a new lease on jobs and livelihoods.

It’s easy to feel dejected on behalf of the communities that have been left behind. However, after personally connecting with folks like Bob, Linda and Joel McKinney, Mayor Reba Honaker, and the countless other individuals who deserve recognition, I am hopeful that their leadership can do something to restore Welch.

For those of us on the outside, we must remember that communities like Welch need to be included in the national conversation about lives and livelihoods.

As my new buddy Chad said: “It’s hard when you get up every morning knowing that 80 percent of the country hates what you do for a living.”

I left McDowell with a new sense of empathy for the people whose stories we heard, and a sense of hope – however fragile – for the future.