Danielle Elkins: Coal conundrums in Craig and elsewhere
Since I moved to Craig a couple of months ago, I’ve heard several local residents express their concerns about the decline of the coal industry here in Moffat County.
Hearing those concerns hits so very close to home for me.
My hometown is located in the heart of Southwest Virginia, an area that was basically built around the coal industry. My father, both my grandfathers and my uncles have all worked in the coal mining industry at some point in their lives — whether they drove a truck transporting coal, worked on the surface strip-mining or worked underground.
The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy’s web site states that the discovery of coal in Colonial Virginia dates back to 1701, however, coal was likely being used for domestic purposes before then.
Virginia DMME says that commercial coal mining began after that in 1748, when Richmond mines began supplying coal to meet local needs and expanding markets on the Atlantic coast. But almost all of Virginia’s coal production has come from the Southwest Virginia Coalfields since the 1950s.
At one point in time, coal made millionaires of many Southwest Virginians. Unfortunately, however, the coal industry in Southwest Virginia has been steadily declining for years now.
In fact, according to the Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends electronic database, the number of licensed mines operating in Virginia declined more than 50 percent — from 800 to 328 — between 1980 and 2001. Of those 328 mines that were left in operation in 2001, only 204 produced marketable coal.
VEPT says that one major reason for such a decline in coal production is mining cost. According to the electronic database, Appalachian coal seams are much smaller than the ones mined in the Western United States, therefore Virginia miners need considerably more expensive underground mines and equipment to extract the coal from seams.
Regardless, the coal industry still seemed to be a decent employment option for many when I was growing up.
But add new, stricter worker safety and environmental protection laws to the mix, with a dash of declining coal prices since production has moved westward, and you have a recipe for disaster in the Appalachian coal industry, according to VEPT.
Research in 2013 conducted by King Institute for Regional Economic Studies (KIRES) at King University — located in Bristol, Tennessee, which is about an hour from my hometown — reports that each coal mining job supports 1.27 in other sectors of the region’s economy. Therefore, the loss of 100 coal mining jobs would mean that 127 jobs would be lost in all other industries, adding up to a total loss of 227 jobs, says KIRES Paper No. 7.
Since major coal layoffs began in Southwest Virginia toward the end of 2012, the local economy has been in obvious distress. Coal-reliant families have suffered tremendous losses and many — like myself, my boyfriend, and some of our friends — have moved out of the area, some permanently and some temporarily.
Many Southwest Virginians are hoping for a comeback for coal, however. Some believe that the upcoming presidential election will determine coal’s fate in the area. Others say that they are already seeing a comeback in the works. There are even unconfirmed rumors circulating that some of the major coal companies have recently begun to hire again. Regardless, the coal industry’s fate still appears undetermined.
Although there are some differences between Southwest Virginia and Craig when it comes to how coal is mined and regulated, a major similarity I’ve noticed is that in both places there is a tremendous sense of community and along with that, a willingness to come together and help one another during hardships.
Danielle Elkins is a senior at Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. She’s completing her bachelor’s degree in communications through online courses. She will be interning at the Craig Daily Press through December.Danielle Elkins is a senior at Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. She’s completing her bachelor’s degree in communications through online courses. She will be interning at the Craig Daily Press through December. Danielle Elkins is a senior at Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. She’s completing her bachelor’s degree in communications through online courses. She will be interning at the Craig Daily Press through December.
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