For more than 100 years, coal has defined West Virginia. Coal powered the nation.
West Virginia miners fueled the Allied victory in World War II. A Japanese admiral, when asked after the war when he knew the Axis Powers would lose, said, he knew it before the war, when he toured Pittsburgh and saw the steel mills. During that war, Pittsburgh produced more steel than all of Japan and Germany combined — and it was West Virginia metallurgical coal that powered the huge furnaces of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Birmingham.
What does West Virginia have to show for a century of tying its lifeline to coal? Abject poverty. Southern West Virginia is almost a ruin.
According to the 2011 American Community Survey, 25.8 percent of West Virginia children (94,852) under the age of 18 lived in poverty compared with 22.2 percent of U.S. children. Children under age 6 have the highest poverty rate of all.
Two of the counties that produced the most coal, McDowell and Mingo, had child poverty rates above 30 percent in 2011. Six other counties had child poverty rates above 23.7 percent. As of 2015, Clay County — which as recently as 2012 produced more than 1 million tons of coal — no longer has a grocery store.
West Virginia consistently ranks worst in the U.S., or near worst, in numerous measures of health and well-being.
But coal was, and is, valuable. So where did the riches go? Away, away, over the hills. The wealth was funneled out of the mountains and delivered to executives in plush offices far from West Virginia. They thanked West Virginians for their toils with black lung disease, hardship, despair. Now the easy-to-mine coal is gone. What’s left is mined more efficiently by machine; far fewer workers are needed.
Many West Virginia families, for whom coal mining was tradition, prosperity, culture and dignity, are now left drifting, rudderless. The promised riches of coal, for West Virginia, rarely materialized, and when they did, were badly mismanaged, chiefly by Democrats, who cast themselves as the party of working people. And what has anyone learned from this?
Apparently nothing. A new power rises in the north — natural gas. Again, West Virginia has been found to be sitting on a gold mine of untapped natural resources. And again, West Virginia’s elected lawmakers are all too eager to give this wealth to out-of-state corporations, at bargain-basement prices. Antero and EQT, two of the top gas producers in the state, are not West Virginia companies.
West Virginia’s own Bray Cary sits on the board of gas-drilling firm EQT and has the ear of Gov. Jim Justice. During 2017, EQT, a company that reported more than $1.5 billion in net income, paid $740.1 million for new drilling rights in West Virginia. With that kind of wealth generated out of West Virginia’s ground, why is West Virginia struggling to pay teachers a competitive wage?
Not content with taking what they can get, lawmakers have passed a “co-tenancy” bill that allows gas companies to drill on land with the consent of only 75 percent of the owners. This version is better than earlier ones, but it still amounts to lawmakers of both parties voting to allow corporations to steal mineral rights from unwilling citizens, again. Some late amendments proposed by Sen. Michael Romano, D-Harrison, would have provided some due process for those landowners, but the amendments failed.
The bill did include a fraction of income for the Public Employees Insurance Agency — half of a small fund that the state already collects from royalties for unknown mineral owners. That fund was set up to reclaim abandoned gas wells, which are numerous.
Including that provision for public employees’ health care allowed Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, to say during the discussion, “If you vote against this bill, you’re voting against funding PEIA.” But that funding is far beneath West Virginia’s potential, and it was diverted from another need. The Legislature did not do something more meaningful based on past experience, such as raise severance taxes on natural gas to capture more of West Virginians’ wealth, whether to permanently fund PEIA today, or to put something away for when the gas boom is gone.
It’s a familiar pattern by now, with a predictable long-term outcome.
We know a local man who taught for a few years in a one-room schoolhouse in McDowell County, called the billion-dollar coalfield during the 1970s. He recently went back and took a photo. Where that school once stood is nothing, save for a simple staircase of stone, standing alone in green woods.
This version has been corrected to delete companies that are not gas producers in West Virginia, and add others that are.