Why do folks in Coal Country insist on celebrating an industry that keeps laying them off, cutting their job benefits, and poisoning their natural resources? Does any other exploitative and slowly-dying industry have entire festivals and beauty pageants devoted to it? As with all twisted love affairs, it’s complicated. In an interview for “Coal: A Love Story” — an ongoing multimedia journalism project out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — a subject explains:
“We’re in a love affair with coal right now because of the way we live. It’s a twisted love affair: we depend on it for everything that we do, but at the same time it’s killing us.”
Coal currently provides 45% of our nation’s energy, as opposed to solar (.03%), wind (2%), hydro (6%), nuclear (20%), and natural gas (24%). But, thanks to automation and greedy CEOs who ruthlessly cut costs to boost their bonuses, only 83,000 Americans work as coal miners, and an ever-dwindling total of 174,000 hold stable, full-time blue collar jobs in the coal industry as a whole. Yet, the pride and peril of delving into the earth for generations to power a growing nation has created a unique culture and strong sense of identity for these coal mining communities.
Think Progress reports that the “sense of pride and loyalty” in coal mining communities is backfiring against the people who live in them. While our fellow citizens fiercely defend their culture and way of life, the coal mining industry gives them little in return, and lobbies to ensure that — when it comes to jobs and the local economy — they’re the only game in town.
Every year, coal contributes less and less to the electricity needs of the country. With that, miners’ jobs have long been declining, due in large part to the mechanization of the coal industry, and are increasingly at risk. Coal companies are pulling promised health benefits out from under their workers’ feet. At the same time, the industry spends millions of lobbying dollars to keep other energy options out of West Virginia, leaving coal as the only good job option for many communities.
Think Progress adds that the powerful coal lobby blocks efforts to create new jobs and pursue green energy sources because — even though they can’t employ all these people and coal mining is not economically or environmentally sustainable — they like being the only game in town. Lorelie Scarbro, a life-long resident of West Virginia who hails from generations of miners told Think Progress that pride and loyalty run deep in coal mining culture:
“They love what they do, the contribution that they make, being able to support their families, and the contribution they make to the electricity needs of the nation. There’s a lot of reasons to be proud.”
But Scarbro adds that their loyalty may be misplaced.
‘The people that live here have no choices, and that is by design — by the industry and politicians who are loyal to [coal].”
The coal industry has many ways of promoting itself and appealing to coal mining culture and its deep roots in coal communities, including coal festivals and coal-related beauty pageants. Amazingly enough, they don’t always fund these festivals and pageants.
In a sad side note, The American Guide writes — in a luminous photo essay about the 2013 West Virginia Coal Festival Pageant — that the kids in these impoverished coal mining communities lack even basic things many of us take for granted.
A worthy companion piece to this photo essay is Lauren’s “Better Boone” project from Boone County, WV (where the pageant takes place). She asked students at the Christian Faith School what they would like to see in their communities in the next 1-5 years. They wrote and used collage to respond. Answers included “More coal miners to get their jobs back,” “Wireless internet service everywhere,” “Domestic Violence for Teenage Girls Counsel,” and two requests for a Taco Bell.
“She was born straight into coal. Straight into it. With the Coal Queen, she is representing not only her father, but every other miner who leaves the house every morning to make an honest living.”
— 2011 West Virginia Coal Queen Arianna Bailey’s mom, “Coal: A Love Story.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to comments from readers who were upset with certain photos were used in this article, they have been removed.
More from AATTP on the coal industry.
- Coal Company Brutally Cuts Healthcare for Miners, Blames Obama!
- House Of Representatives Votes To Allow Dumping Of Coal Waste Into Streams
- Energy Giant Busted Deliberately Dumping Over 60 Million Gallons of Coal Waste Into N.C. Water Supply!
- 100,000 Gallons of Coal Waste Contaminates More WV Water [Images]
- Duke Energy Coal Ash Spills Into NC River 6 Miles Upstream From Drinking Water Source
- Big Coal Has Poisoned West Virginia’s Water Because of Some Ayn Randian Vision of ‘Freedom’