Nowhere in the United States is the “paradox of plenty” more evident than in Southern West Virginia, where the economic development of the southwest coalfields stands in stark contrast to that of the New and Greenbrier River valleys.
With the same legal framework of state government as the control variable, the region that boasts the “Home of the Billion Dollar Coalfields” has today the most impoverished, undereducated and unhealthy citizens in the nation, whereas those living in counties just to the east and largely devoid of coal enjoy world-class tourism and luxury resort living.
Everything, from the access and provision of health care to the quality of school systems and educational attainment, underscores the striking disparity between the two regions.
Mountaintop removal dead zones and valley fills contrast PGA golf courses and ski resorts; abject poverty juxtaposes intergenerational wealth.
On its face, it appears to be a profound contradiction, given the “blessing” of abundant natural resources in counties such as McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming.
But, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas summarized in 1969, “West Virginia is, in a sens,e a microcosm of ... a colony. It is partially owned and effectively controlled by coal, power and railroad companies, which, in turn, are controlled by vast financial interests of the East and Middle West.”
Douglas further opined that those corporate ownership interests historically wielded near-complete control over our lawmakers and, in turn, the state’s entire political economy.
And it could be argued that their corrupting influence still sullies West Virginia’s political landscape to this day, as evidenced by the disgraceful election of Brent Benjamin to the state Supreme Court and the subsequent trial and conviction of Don Blankenship.
What is profoundly different, however, is the collapse of the mining industry that has resulted in not only the massive loss of state revenue but also the realization of staggering legacy costs that have, for decades, been shifted away from corporate production profits and onto our people.
Black lung death and disability, environmental degradation and what should be viewed as nothing short of criminal UMWA pension mismanagement are but three examples.
From this tragic backdrop of the legacy of coal is the emergence of a diaspora of the working age who are now faced with having to leave behind their homes and land and compete in the U.S. labor market.
It is for them that the term “resource curse” should mean the most, for rather than have the best education and training to prepare them for new employment, they instead face the stark reality of the exact opposite.
Another seemingly constant variable of the paradox of plenty is the degree that just one predominate natural resource industry has effectively controlled our political leaders.
Not since the days of Gov. William C. Marland’s administration has West Virginia’s collective moral compass reckoned true north, as he was the last of the state’s governors to have truly stood up to the political stranglehold and corrupting influence of the coal industry.
Three-term Gov. Arch Moore’s dishonesty, bribery and extortion were so thorough that he eventually pleaded guilty to no less than five felony charges and left behind a trail of tears that, for many, could be traced to the Buffalo Creek disaster.
It wasn’t until his twilight years that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, after having been in cahoots with the coal industry, finally admonished, “Coal must embrace the future: The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy, because most American voters want a healthier environment.”
And in the case of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, his stunning, late-career floor speech rebuking the coal industry for its loathsome campaign against the EPA over its Mercury and Air Toxic Standards Rule was remarkable.
If that speech didn’t speak volumes, his son Justin Rockefeller certainly did last year, when in announcing the divestiture of coal by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund stated, “Investing in fossil fuels is somewhat akin to a cancer-fighting foundation investing in tobacco.”
Consider closely young Rockefeller’s words, his father’s timing, as well as the overall irony of that announcement vis-à-vis West Virginia’s most storied political career, as well as that of Standard Oil.
Yet, today, with coal employment just a tiny fraction of the state’s total workforce, political efforts will continue to be controlled by those same corrupting influences, who’ll insist that there is a war on them.
Howard Swint is a commercial property broker in Charleston.