It used to be that the news media rediscovered the poor Appalachian coalfields of Southwest Virginia only about once a year in June or July when a thousand or two thousand people would line up for free health care offered by the worthy Remote Area Medical organization in towns such as Wise.
The reporters then would pack up and head to their homes in larger cities. Southwest Virginia would be forgotten until next year’s RAM clinic.
But since Donald Trump rode the disenchantment of poor white mountain folks to the White House, the media has come forth with story after story about poverty, the declining coal industry, the opioid epidemic, a lack of hope and even free dentures.
That’s just fine, although the toughest and still unanswered question is what can be done to grow sustainable jobs in faraway places that for years have been ravaged by the coal industry. It is a question that I’ve considered often. I grew up partly in West Virginia and have reported on the region for decades, including two or so years researching a book about the now-defunct Massey Energy coal company and its notorious former boss Don Blankenship.
It is a worthy topic during this year’s gubernatorial election, but only one candidate, Democrat Ralph Northam, seems to have any ideas for what to do with the coalfield areas and the rest of rural Virginia.
Among his ideas are $37 million for community college tuition for technical training in exchange for public service work; helping veterans find jobs; expanding programs at the University of Virginia at Wise and boosting a “rapid readiness” program to provide employers with trained labor when they need it. He also would coordinate state efforts to expand broadband.
Northam’s program is more coherent than anything his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, has come up with. Responding to the idea, Gillespie has attacked Northam for not showing up at meetings on rural jobs as lieutenant governor. Gillespie has criticized President Trump for planning on cutting the Appalachian Regional Commission, a regional economic agency set up in the 1960s. That’s about it.
The problem with Northam’s plan is that it is too modest. Dealing with the devastation that coal has brought the area is hardly a new phenomenon. Coal mining has been on the decline in Virginia since at least the early 1990s. Local officials and business people have been trying for years to come up with answers to help what has essentially been a one-industry, mini-Third World area.
They have tried more Wal-Marts, call centers, ATV trails, nature tourism and high technology — everyone’s panacea. Federal largesse can help. In the West Virginia county where I once lived, the FBI built a criminal justice information center, employing hundreds, thanks to the efforts of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D). One problem is that there are only so many sophisticated fingerprint facilities to go around.
What doesn’t get noted enough in the current wave of news stories about Appalachia is what happened to the coal companies. Where did they go? They plundered the people and hills for a century and a half. They exported wealth while leaving behind ripped-apart mountains, polluted water and generations of sick and disabled people.
Many have gone bankrupt thanks to thinner mining seams and competition from natural gas. It is too late to make them return some the wealth they hauled away. Instead, they are portrayed as the innocent victims of the “War on Coal” by the likes of Trump.
Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.