Future Solid planning needed

A Coal River mining complex just sent workers a bitter warning that it may terminate 280 jobs at two deep mines and two surface mines at Alum Creek and Julian in early October. A fifth mine in the complex already wiped out 160 jobs in the past year.

This followed a similar Alpha Natural Resources warning that 1,100 West Virginia layoffs may occur in mid-October — and a previous Patriot Coal notice of 850 possible layoffs that resulted in 75 lost jobs.

Suffering in coal communities is a grim reality. A new study found that West Virginia is one of only two states (the other is Florida) in which wives now provide more family support than husbands. That’s partly because high-paying, blue-collar, male-dominated jobs are retreating, and wives often take lower-earning service work.

The University of New Hampshire report said West Virginia has America’s lowest ratio of employed husbands — 83.1 percent.

Reporter Caitlin Cook illustrated the findings by describing a coal miner who was laid off last fall, and now his wife is the chief family support as a day care worker at St. Agnes School in Kanawha City.

Decline of the coal industry is hurting West Virginia. So far, state politicians have tried to blame the problem solely on federal pollution limits — but economists know better. The retreat is occurring chiefly because good Appalachian seams are exhausted, and cheap Marcellus Shale gas is seizing fuel markets.

We suggested repeatedly that West Virginia leaders launch a task force to learn precise facts about the transformation that is in progress, and recommend ways to prepare for the future. Officialdom didn’t act — but a coalition of concerned citizens and groups is stepping forward:

“What’s Next, West Virginia?” is a series of public brainstorming sessions sponsored by the West Virginia Center for Civic Life, West Virginia Community Development Hub, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, West Virginia Council of Churches, Leadership West Virginia and 21 other nonprofit organizations. Upcoming programs include an Aug. 21 event in Beckley and a Sept. 3 session in Charleston.

We hope these conscientious volunteers come up with workable ideas about how to cope with the state’s economic shift.

Here’s a helpful prospect: Abandoned former mine sites now provide more West Virginia jobs than the whole coal industry does. Last year, Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research issued a study estimating that 19,690 West Virginians now work on “post-mined lands,” though that includes direct, indirect and induced employment, including area stores and restaurants.

Hospitals, schools, golf courses, prisons, shopping malls, airports, housing subdivisions, ATV trails, industrial parks, manufacturing — even the FBI headquarters at Clarksburg and the Boy Scout jamboree complex in Fayette County — all occupy depleted mining property.

However, an Associated Press study found that the vast majority of leveled mountaintop removal sites lie fallow, unused for human benefit. Perhaps What’s Next, West Virginia can propose uses for the flattened land.

The future is coming. West Virginia needs intelligent planning for it.

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