by Blair Halcyon, Swarthmore Mountain Justice
This is the first of several blog posts that we’ll be filing along the Divest Coal Frontlines Listening Tour. We’ve been on the road for several days now, but Internet access has been sporadic, so sorry for not updating more frequently. We’ll try to do better!
We’ve spent the last two days with folks from Coal River Mountain Watch, a grassroots group located in the Coal River valley in southern West Virginia. CRMW has a variety of projects to empower communities fighting mountaintop removal, improve material conditions, and advocate for community-centered economic transition.
The last goal, a post-coal economic transition, is more relevant than ever, thanks to the dramatic decline in the coal industry over the last six months. The decline in coal production is a complex issue for CRMW for several reasons. We had a conversation with CRMW activists about how CRMW has been adapting to these developments. I want to highlight some what we talked about, in no particular order.
This is not the end of coal in West Virginia. Coal is certainly on the decline, but predictions of coal’s imminent demise have been overblown. West Virginia produced approximately 130 million tons of coal in 2011. Federal projections indicate that the total will remain over 100 million tons for the next several years, and then level out slightly below that. These projections, if realized, mean decades more of poisoned water and air for West Virginians. Organizers with CRMW say that news coverage of coal’s decline has led some folks to believe that the fight is over, and their energy is no longer needed. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The coal industry has been shutting down a roughly equal number of underground and MTR coal mines. This is somewhat unexpected, because underground mines are less profitable than MTR (because companies need to hire more workers, something they are loathe to do, despite their rhetoric of job creation). Organizers say it is partly due to the controversial nature of MTR, and increased legal barriers to permitting, that companies are closing MTR sites instead of exclusively shuttering the less profitable underground mines.
The downturn in coal is mostly due to the increase in natural gas production from hydrofracking. Whether you’re concerned with water quality or climate change, fracking is no better than coal. Though Pennsylvania and New York have gotten the most attention for fracking, it is also happening in West Virginia. The switch from coal energy with natural gas, though beneficial for some communities in West Virginia, continues to affect others. It is ultimately a displacement of the problem, rather than a solution. This emphasizes the need for a transition to truly sustainable energy—something CRMW is advocating.
Organizers say that the coal industry’s retreat offers an opportunity to educate about a fact they have always known—that coal companies don’t actually care about West Virginia. Though the industry projects a message of goodwill and economic prosperity when coal prices are high, it is the first to pack up once the business becomes unprofitable. It is the community organizations that will remain, organizing for the health and prosperity of ordinary folks, long after the industry has left.
This conversation reminded us of the deep complexity of these issues. Even successes for the anti-MTR community bring a new set of challenges. There are no easy solutions, and nobody here has tried to sell us any. What is clear, though, is that community power is the common denominator of positive change, and community power is what Coal River Mountain Watch is working to build.