Devoid of a vibrant middle class, rural Appalachia continues to bear the scars of generations of chronic poverty, largely due to an enormous educational deficit, according to Mil Duncan, policy fellow at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute. Duncan, who wrote “Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America,” has found similarities between plantation communities in the Mississippi Delta and coal regions of Appalachia, where coal companies were historically fearful that education would lead to unionization and civil rights organizing.
“They didn’t invest in education of workers and citizens as many other places did,” Duncan said.
It’s a legacy that has complicated the way forward for the region as coal jobs have contracted and become more skilled due to mechanization.
“People are kind of hunkered down if they haven’t left, if they don’t have many prospects,” Duncan said. “Since the War on Poverty, there’s been a lot of good community development plans. In the face of the enormity of the problems, it’s just not enough.”
The coal industry’s legacy can be just as devastating environmentally, as the January spill indicated, as well as socially for those areas tethered tight economically when it starts to dry up, she said.
The coal industry has become a polarizing force pitting neighbors, and in some cases family members, against each other and perpetuating echoes of old union fights — “you’re either for us or ‘agin’ us,” she said. “It’s really hard for change to emerge even though there are earnest, honest people trying to bring it about. Until the education attainment and literacy skills are improved, it’s really hard to go beyond this coal economy.”
But in a disaster, hope may be found.
“That chemical spill has made the anti-regulation stance of the coal industry less powerful,” Duncan said. “Maybe it will be a little opening after all.”
Activists around the state are banking on it.
Late last month, activists delivered more than 50,000 signatures to the director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement seeking federal intervention to shutter West Virginia’s mining enforcement program. The state’s environmental protection agency, they argue, “has been captured by the coal industry, and can’t be trusted to ensure safe, clean drinking water.”
They have increasing reason to worry. In early February, a scant month after the Elk River chemical spill in Charleston, containment failure at a coal slurry impoundment blackened about 6 miles of creek water in eastern Kanawha County with 100,000 gallons of the toxic sludge.
State enforcement officials are focusing on restoring public confidence. Speaking on Feb. 19 about the Elk River and Kanawha incidents, state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman told the West Virginia Gazette that he wanted his agency to focus on prevention.
“You don’t protect the environment by reacting after the fact," he told the newspaper. His comments were made just hours before another spill was confirmed more than 100 miles away in the southern tip of the state. Melting snow was blamed for a run-over of blackwater — the toxic byproduct of coal production — into creek water in the McDowell County town of Gary.
Meaningful change, many fear, will come only when the state feels pressure beyond its borders.
“I am glad for that attention,” said Jarrell, the activist grandmother. “We need to start hollering now while people are still listening to us.”