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To the outside observer, mining can look like a blight on the Mountain State, not a blessing, with dozens of white and gray scars of blown-off green mountaintops across southern West Virginia visible in satellite images from miles above.
But the feeling on the ground can be very different.
“This is just a freak accident with the water thing, in my opinion,” said Timothy McKinney, 30, a laid-off coal miner in Prenter, W.Va. “I’ve been in coal mining since I was out of high school, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the coal industry in general.”
McKinney said he is upset with the chemical company responsible for the spill, which was one of the most dramatic environmental disasters in recent memory in the area and the cause of national headlines.
He says Freedom Industries should have had better safety measures in place, including multiple walls of containment, to stop the accident. He said that would have halted the leak into the Elk River, which made his family’s water undrinkable for days and emitted a pungent, licorice odor into their homes.
McKinney said reports of rashes due to the contaminated water were “all over Facebook” in his community. But he didn’t connect the coal-processing chemical spill with the coal industry as a whole.
McKinney is married with a young son to support, and well-paid work is scarce. A job is what he needs most.
A tall, friendly man in a Cleveland Browns football jersey, McKinney said he worked in the same coal mine for six years until September 2013, when he was laid off.
His town, adorned with of double-wide and single-wide trailers, sits in a valley near several mines in Boone County, south of Charleston.
Clean water has been a problem here for decades.
Until a lawsuit against nearby coal mine companies two years ago, many Prenter residents had either drawn sulfurous-smelling water from wells or driven miles down the road to buy bottled water. The plaintiffs in the case said coal processing waste pumped underground by coal companies had seeped into their water supply, turning it a red or orange color and making it smell like rotten eggs.
After the suit, residents say, they received connections to the West Virginia American Water system. Yet on Jan. 9 they found out they couldn’t temporarily drink that either, due to the chemical spill.
Despite the accident, the decline of the coal industry — which McKinney blames on political factors — is what he believes is the region’s biggest long-term problem, not the poisoning of the water supply. His main wish for his state is a bigger, not smaller, coal industry, providing good jobs which are not curtailed by environmental regulations.
“I’m speaking for a thousand, fifteen hundred people that’s been laid off throughout West Virginia. There’s a lot of families that’s lost homes, families that’s been broken up over it,” McKinney said, speaking near a creek that emitted a strong odor of sulfur as a steady stream of large dump trucks from a nearby mine rumbled past.
Many environmental activists find it frustrating that people harmed by coal pollution will apologize for the industry.
“I call it Coalfield Stockholm syndrome, and it is on a mass scale,” said Dustin White, an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who is from Boone County himself.
“We are programmed early on,” said White, 30, who is also the son of a coal miner. “They (the industry) have ingrained themselves in every aspect of our lives.”
“They are in our schools, telling children they should ‘grow up like Daddy and become a coal miner,’ and telling them they don't need an education when they can work for the industry and make large amounts of money. Even have ‘coal career days’ for children in grade schools.”
In the boom-and-bust economy of coal, however, the lack of jobs has effects that are hard to ignore and that stoke fears of the industry's decline.
In the absence of mining work, some people slip into selling drugs, especially crystal methamphetamine, to make ends meet — creating resentment between West Virginians who make money from legal work, often low paid, and others who turn to crime running meth labs.
“They live higher than anybody around here. They got four-wheelers, they got dirt bikes, they got nice cars. And the smell of it kind of smells like what the damn water smells like,” one resident of coal country, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told Al Jazeera, referring to the observation that the licorice scent coming from the MCHM (or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol) that spilled Jan. 9 smells like a meth cook.
Just like poverty, the environmental impact of the coal industry is easy to find here.
Part of Prenter has not yet received a connection to municipal water, and residents there deal every day with the struggles of getting clean water in a landscape exploited by coal for so long.
About 25 homes, or about 60 people, have been coping for decades with the expense and hassle of replacing tap water with bottled water, and continue to, despite the suit.
“We drink bottled water here. We use it to bathe in, wash clothes,” said Curtis Doss, 41, another laid-off mine worker. He had once been able to get water from a nearby natural spring, but he said mining collapsed it years ago.
“It smells like rotten eggs,” said Daniel Shanblin, 30, who lives in Prenter. “It bubbles whenever you pour something in it. Ever since I was a kid.” He blames the nearby mines for polluting the groundwater where the town’s tap water comes from.
A glass of water from a home tap in Prenter had the strong reek and taste of sulfur.
“We don’t even have crawdaddies no more,” said Tim Pettry, 44, a lawn care worker, referring to the lack of aquatic life left in the small creek that runs along the road in Prenter.
The creek itself is pleasant, rolling along near Prenter’s community center and church on an unseasonably warm January day. “You don’t even want to wade in it,” Doss warned. “You can go out and see white stuff on the rocks in this creek right here. When I was a boy I used to catch fish, but now you can’t even catch a minnow here.”
Doss, who worked at a local mine, had a simple prescription for what the mine companies should do, and again jobs were at the heart of it.
“Fix the water and open back up, so I can get my job back,” he said.
“The people here depend on the mines, and whenever the mines is gone there’s nothing else for us to work because it’s so far to find work.”
All three men, standing on the side of the road near Doss’s garage, voiced skepticism about whether corporations really care about the people who live in West Virginia. “They’re all about the money,” Pettry said.
Shanblin compared the mines to tobacco companies. “They know they’re killing people, putting cancer in the air and the ground and the water,” he said. “Coal production causes a lot of carcinogens to be put in the ground.”
Shanblin gave a clear-cut answer for why he doesn’t move.
“I’m poor. This is the cheapest place to live. And that’s the bottom line. Besides the fact that I was born and raised here. It’s my home.”
If you take the mines out of this county, there ain’t gonna be nothing.
Randy Lengyel, 48, executive director of the Boone County Ambulance Association, strongly defended the coal industry’s role in the state.
“The outside media is always trying to run down the coal industry because they contribute to global warming,” Lengyel said, but maintained that those reports fail to recognize how crucial coal is to the operation of local services like the ambulance association, because property tax revenue from the coal industry remains key to its operation.
Butch Barker, a maintenance worker at the ambulance association, said that some people in coal country bear ill will toward environmentalists for challenging the industry, blaming the activists for job losses or mine closures.
“I know people who hate the environmentalists. They’re afraid they’re going to take their jobs,” Barker said.
He said the bad feelings are so strong that some people might refuse to take water from activists, referring to the environmentalists that handed out free water in his hometown of Nellis.
“It goes both ways,” he said. “They can coexist and make things a lot better.”
Still, to Barker, mines are vital to Boone, with other jobs scarce and far away. “If you take the mines out of this county, there ain’t gonna be nothing.”
Environmentalists say there's plenty of work to be done in cleaning up the damage done by mining.
"Yeah? How long's that going to last?" he said.
Some analysis of how the coal industry has affected the economy of West Virginia shows that it likely contributes to poverty rather than its alleviation, and that most counties where poverty reigns in the region are also those that rely the most on coal mining.
“The ‘resource curse’ occurs when a region’s resource wealth makes its people poorer,” Douglas told Al Jazeera. “Some places, like Norway and Texas, are richer because of their resources. Some other places seem to be poorer because of their resources, and our study indicates that these may include the coal-mining counties of the Appalachians."
While it can apply to many kinds of natural resources, from oil and gas to minerals and timber, the resource curse involves steep levels of inequality, high poverty and environmental degradation in places whose economies rely on one resource. The promise of the commodity also comes with the economy having to rely on its price, often leading to a cycle of boom and bust.
“No doubt, coal mining provides opportunities for relatively high-wage employment in the region, but its effect on prosperity appears to be strongly negative in the long run,” the economists wrote in their analysis.
One of the biggest problems, the analysis stated, is that the coal industry does not provide enough high-paying jobs to people who obtain college degrees. These people leave the state, contributing to economic decline over the long term.
In addition to taking steps to diversify the economy, the authors suggested that Appalachian authorities try the tactic that wealthy Norway has, charging higher dues on companies that mine coal in the area.
The authors noted the recent rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale gas deposits in the region, and said it wasn't an antidote.
“The shale gas industry, like the coal industry, shows a strong tendency toward boom and bust.”
As for why West Virginians so strongly defend the coal industry, Douglas said cultural factors are at work.
“The coal miner is to us West Virginians what the cowboy is to Texans: a hero and an emblem. We’re proud of our miners, and proud of our mining traditions. It’s hard to think of West Virginia without thinking of coal mines.
“People in West Virginia defend the coal industry because it provides jobs, income and tax revenues, and because the coal mining tradition runs deep in West Virginia,” he said.
But, added Douglas, “The numbers we studied indicate that the people who live in Appalachian counties where there is no coal mining are, on average, better educated, have higher incomes and enjoy higher income growth rates than those who live in Appalachian counties where coal is mined.”
Douglas said it’s hard to convince people who only know jobs in mines that the industry doesn’t offer the region a good bargain.
“We can’t see what the economy of the region would be like if there were no coal mining.”
Coal from above
On Google maps, it's easy to spot how coal mining has altered the landscape of West Virginia. Prenter and Nellis, just two of many mining towns in the region, are shown in blue. A few hundred people live in each. Some nearby mines and coal slurry ponds are in yellow.
From Jan. 9 to Jan. 19, much of the area around the capital city, Charleston, was under a tap water ban due to a chemical spill that tainted public water for 300,000 people.