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Covering West Virginia’s Long History of Broken Promises

In the face of a major decline in the coal industry, families and entire communities that depended on it are hurting. Now that natural gas is booming, I’m reporting on whether we’ve learned anything from the past.

As West Virginia’s coal industry has declined over the last decade, closed-down coal preparation plants like this one in Fayette County have become increasingly common. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail)

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

More than 26 years ago, I wrote a story about a woman named Dixie Woolum.

I had been at my paper barely six months. At the time, I thought it would be cool that I’d get a dateline from Woolum’s hometown, Cinderella, W.Va. Little did I know then how much that story’s headline — “Broken promises” — really meant in the long history of West Virginia’s relationship with coal.

Woolum’s husband, Jimmy, was a coal miner who had died years earlier.

“Dixie Woolum packed her husband’s dinner bucket every morning,” I wrote. “Jimmy left early to work in the mines outside Williamson, heart of the billion-dollar coalfield.”

I was hoping to illustrate the financial distress faced at the time by Woolum and by thousands of people like her because of the potential collapse of the United Mine Workers of America’s health care plan for retired miners and their families. Miners like Jimmy Woolum thought they were promised health care for life in a long-ago deal between President Harry Truman and legendary UMWA President John L. Lewis.

In reality, protecting that health care has been an almost constant fight, part of the root of the bitter strikes against Pittston Coal and A.T. Massey Coal, the first two in an avalanche of coal operators who tried to stop funding miner benefits and pensions the union had won in its national contract.

Coal miners and coal communities are pretty used to broken promises by now.

Congress promised in 1969 to eliminate black lung disease. But thousands of miners — including Jimmy Woolum — continued to die from it. Today, though the industry knows how to prevent black lung, there’s a resurgence of the disease among miners in Central Appalachia.

Coalfield residents were promised that strip mines would be reclaimed, but most states haven’t required companies to set aside nearly enough money for cleanups, setting the stage for a financial crisis as the industry’s decline puts more and more companies at risk of failing.

Most of all, coalfield communities were promised prosperity — and today some of the places that have produced the most coal are among the region’s poorest.

How can this be?

It’s a crucial question to ask, especially at this critical time in West Virginia, as the state rushes forward with its new relationship with the natural gas industry.

Coal has done a lot for West Virginia. Generations of miners earned a good living, especially after the state’s coalfields were unionized. As Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., likes to remind people in Washington, coal helped win two world wars and built our nation into a global superpower.

The industry’s downsides are, if not always acknowledged by political leaders, well-documented. The great Appalachian historian John Alexander Williams listed coal’s “repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, and its seemingly endless series of disasters,” in an often-cited passage from his seminal history of the state.

And now, in the face of a major decline in the coal industry, families and entire communities that depended on it are hurting.

What will coal leave behind? Many in West Virginia are starting to understand the painful answers to that question: Abandoned mine lands, abandoned pension plans, polluted streams, empty government coffers — giant challenges for local communities in supporting schools and other basic needs.

At the same time, political leaders and business boosters are pointing to natural gas as the way out of West Virginia’s downward spiral, as the answer to our state’s economic problems.

But others worry that the state is headed down the same road with natural gas that it’s been on with coal.

We’ve just published a story detailing those similarities. Earlier this year, for example, Gov. Jim Justice proposed and then quickly backed away from a natural gas tax earlier to help fund our state’s schools. Gov. William Marland did the same thing with a proposed coal tax in the 1950s.

And Marland was far from the first to offer warnings about West Virginia’s wealth being dug from the ground and hauled out of state.

As early as 1884, a state Tax Commission report said, “The question is whether this vast wealth shall belong to persons who live here and who are permanently identified with the future of West Virginia, or whether it shall pass into the hands of persons who do not live here and care nothing for our state except to pocket the treasures which lie buried in our hills.”

In this series of stories, with the help of ProPublica, I hope to bring readers here in West Virginia, and those around the country, a clearer view of how history could be repeating itself.

For example, as my first story illustrates, West Virginia lawmakers and regulators have moved quickly to give gas developers broad latitude to operate, weakening environmental and public safety rules that govern the industry. Over the course of the year, I plan to more fully illustrate the ways the gas boom and what it brings with it are changing our communities and our landscape.

I also plan to look at the impact on workers. Are the jobs from the Marcellus Shale gas boom really going to West Virginians, or are companies bringing in seasoned hands from Texas and Oklahoma? Unlike our experience with coal, is West Virginia using the wealth created during this boom to plan and prepare for some day in the future when the gas is gone and we need a more diverse economy?

Who is in the room when decisions about the gas industry are being made? Are our communities empowered, or are government officials and gas lobbyists working out deals behind closed doors?

Hopefully, the stories about this crossroads in our state will shine some light on how West Virginia can learn from our past and the experience of people like Dixie Woolum. Follow along, and please tell us your stories, about your experience with the coal or the natural gas industry in West Virginia.

You can email us at [email protected] or call 304-348-1702. You can also send us regular mail to Ken Ward Jr., Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1001 Virginia Street, East., Charleston, W.Va., 25301. Plus, we’ll be giving you more information in the days to come about how to take part in this conversation.

Ken Ward Jr. covers the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

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