Virginia is representative of the divide in the United States. In Northern Virginia, our economy booms with technology jobs. A lot of our residents either work for or subcontract with the federal government. In contrast, southern and Southwest Virginia, Buchanan County included, is agricultural, textile or coal communities suffering in our new economy. The Northern Virginia population is dense and racially, religiously, culturally and economically diverse. South and Southwest Virginia are mostly white and Christian, and young people typically leave for more opportunity.
Listening to the miners, I was amazed by their creativity, focus and wit. They are passionate about their work, care about their families, value self-reliance and are community-focused.
Learning about the mines, I realized they are examples of true human ingenuity. The mine’s footprint is a full 23 miles. To get to where coal was actually mined (the “long wall”), we took a small train about seven miles to the site. There, a huge drill bit into the wall. As the coal was stripped away, it was fed into a miles-long patchwork of conveyor belts to a hoist that lifted it to the surface.
Every inch of the mine was planned years in advance, and every piece of equipment crafted for efficiency. Safety equipment and design were cutting-edge: Microchips monitored every miner, oxygen tanks and emergency pods were strategically situated to maximize survival in an emergency. The mine was clean. Despite hundreds of miners at any given time, there was a complete absence of trash or human waste, and water was sprayed over the coal to minimize dust in the air.
Driving home, I couldn’t help but ponder the misconceptions assigned to coal miners. It made me realize one thing: I’m a hypocrite.
I criticize Virginia’s miners for destroying the Earth, but I’m just as much a part of the problem. My generation and those before benefited from coal. Coal propelled the United States into the leader of the world economy. Coal helped build the bridges that we drive on every day and probably is connected to every aspect of our lives. We continue to benefit from an energy source while we shame those who provide it to us.
Miners get criticized for supporting President Trump, who promised to bring back coal jobs. But we’ve been duped, too. Instead of listening, we condense miners’ complex, tangible concerns into sound bites of the culture wars.
Here’s the hard reality: Coal mining jobs are disappearing. Growing up in Buchanan County, I remember older people talking about the great days of old, lots of people and jobs. Now those jobs are gone. Still, as the miners boasted on my recent tour, in 2018, the mine produced more coal than ever before. That’s because technology has allowed fewer high-skilled miners supporting massive machines to produce more coal. And that’s the purpose of automation: fewer people, more profits.
I suspect there will be further suffering in mining communities such as Buchanan County. Perhaps, through sheer grit, some will be able to transition into another industry. Maybe other industries will notice the natural beauty of the region and relocate. And maybe new industries will need the impressive skills developed by these great people. But the future is far from certain.
Meanwhile, we need to show the empathy for coal miners that we show other groups facing dire circumstances. We need to treat them like real people facing real issues who get hurt when talked down to and who want to be self-reliant. Like us, they want to live productive, fulfilled lives.
Andrew Yang, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, speculates that many industries will be automated out of existence. Soon it could be us on the chopping block. How will we ask to be treated?