Home Energy and Environment Letter to Soledad O’Brien after Blair Mountain Special

Letter to Soledad O’Brien after Blair Mountain Special


(Thanks for this diary on an important subject we should all – including those of us in Virginia who consume coal-fired power – should care deeply about! – promoted by lowkell)

Dear Soledad:

Thank you for covering the Blair Mountain story and event. I hope you understand that it is a glimpse into Appalachia — one story that is similar to others all across Appalachia. Also, you should be aware that it is not just historical sites we seek to save: It is OUR HOME.

I live in Wise County, VA – no, not WV – where approximately 35%/40% of the entire land surface of the county has been destroyed. Take a virtual tour on Google Earth around Wise County, where the enormity and scale of the destruction is visible from far above the earth. Until just recently, Pike County, KY and Wise County, VA held the No. 1 and No. 2 spot in the nation for strip mining proportionate to land mass. (Wise County may have lost its No. 2 spot to another eastern Kentucky county just recently.)

Here’s the gist of it. I’m a coal miner’s daughter, the earth is warming, and besides that, coal is a finite resource. Many experts, including USGS, the Energy Information Administration, and other state geological surveys, confirm that the Northern and Central Appalachian coal reserves have peaked; the bulk of the remaining coal lie in thinner seams that make these economically unfeasible or at least more difficult to extract.  

The fact that coal is running out is at least one explanation for why the industry has moved increasingly to mining techniques (mountaintop removal – or mountain removal – coal mining) that seriously impact close-by inhabited communities. This practice is not only highly controversial, but requires much less labor. The number of employees in Virginia’s coalfields decreased from approximately 10,000 in 1990 to just over 4,000 in 2004. The supply of jobs dwindles while poverty increases. As a result, Wise County finds itself with an increase to a full 25% of our households under the federal income poverty level in the 2010 census.  

So this is the real dilemma. With a declining coal supply that is economically unfeasible to mine without subsidies and tax credits (of which they get plenty in the Commonwealth of Virginia); with a declining supply of coal jobs because of the anointed mining technique; and because of increasing household poverty rates; we need representatives who at least think of an economic future without coal.

Where are they? A vision must be imagined and advanced that will propel southwest Virginia onto a truly more diversified economic plane that will prevent brain drain (which prevents progress as a general rule), declining populations, and increased poverty. Instead, they all choose to tie themselves to the sinking ship of coal. It’s an Appalachian story, and it’s one that needs to change.

Kathy Selvage


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