top of page
  • Eirian Gail

Coal Mines Kill Appalachia

If you listen to politicians like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, you might characterize the legacy of Appalachia to be one of coal mining. You might think coal mining is what defines Appalachia. And, as these politicians want you to believe, you might think that America must bolster the dying coal industry to preserve the Appalachian way of life. But what defines coal miners, their communities, and the region of Appalachia is not the act of going into mines to work sixty-hour weeks, breathing in coal dust, and risking your life in an industry with over five times the rate of fatal injury of other occupations. The legacy of Appalachia is in our unions and our battles against companies who place profits over workers every time. The notion that coal mines are what characterize the Appalachian region obfuscates the harm coal mining does to the ecology and communities of our mountains. 

In the ten years I knew my Papaw, I saw him maybe once or twice a year during my summer visits to Tennessee. I spent so much time in cars during childhood, driving along the mountains; I knew the way the flora changed as you drove down 81 from Maryland to Tennessee like the back of my hand. I liked to count the mile markers and exits to figure out where we were on the big atlas my dad kept in the car. I could tell when we entered Tennessee, could tell as we got closer and closer to home, where swathes of kudzu take over entire cliff sides, massive in the way skyscrapers and cities are.

One time, I got to visit Papaw where he lived in Harlan County, Kentucky. The drive over followed the mountains up from Knoxville into Kentucky, flowing together like a sea. Unlike Tennessee, Kentucky is blue: indigo mountains, cloudy fog, and fields of bluegrass. My Papaw had a small house and immediately behind it, an old mountain rose above. He was surrounded by the hemlock trees he loved so much, filled with black bears and meadow phlox. Oftentimes, he and my dad would drive up this mountain to look out onto the valley below. The last time they did this, my Papaw showed him how they had begun strip mining the peak of another mountain; an entire world of plants and animals razed to show off the naked dirt, dry from the unadulterated sun.

The summer I visited him, I was obsessed with the Hunger Games. My friends and I would play in backyards, pretending we were tributes: foraging and hunting for food, sleeping in trees, and fighting to the death. I had learned to shoot with a bow and arrow at summer camp and I was desperate for my own. Hearing this, my Papaw went into his work shed on the edge of the yard and emerged having carved notches into a branch and tying it with string to give me my own bow to practice with. I remember how he was capable with his hands, building and fixing things. My dad says he could build just about anything.

Papaw was a mechanic for a coal company. He went into the mines where there is no daylight, where the air is thick with coal dust and he fixed the machinery that dug away at the mountains. Harlan County is coal country; coal runs through the mountains like veins. Where booming towns once were, only empty buildings and stragglers remain. As the coal industry declines so does the economy, since no one is coming to fill the void. Employment options are limited and if you can work for a coal mine, it’ll pay better than the Dollar General. Because of the nature of the coal industry, the man who hired Papaw “couldn’t afford” to give him the health insurance he was legally entitled to. Instead, he strung my Papaw along with promises of upward mobility and better pay. 

The boss could, however, afford to build a pretty new mansion for his wife. 

My dad used to take care of old folks, and he’d always mention one man and his wife, who were old money. The man’s family apparently owned the biggest coal mine in the county through the 19th century and most of the 20th. That man lived a long time and died in a nice nursing home, paying for others to take care of him. The same can’t be said for the men his family employed.

Papaw eventually stopped working for the coal mine and got a job operating machines at a different company. This job had better working conditions, stable employment, and health insurance. But, by the time he finally saw a doctor, it was too late, his condition too far along. He passed a couple of months after I turned ten. I remember the first time I had to say goodbye to someone, I remember how my cousin had to take me away to cry after I saw the coffin next to his picture, I remember the rose I took home from the funeral and kept on my dresser. I think of all the questions I might’ve asked him and how we might’ve bonded over our shared love of the mountains and forests of Appalachia, had he not been taken at only fifty-three. 

The negligence of coal mining companies killing workers has a long tradition in Appalachia. The town my family is from, Coal Creek, Tennessee (now Rocky Top) is known for a war waged by coal miners against companies who paid them in scrip,  destroyed their homes, and replaced them with slave labor from men in prisons when they tried to form unions. Harlan County, Kentucky is best known for the 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA which shows the Brookside Strike of coal miners against Duke Power, who refused to sign a union contract giving miners better pay and safer working conditions. In the documentary, one former coal miner tells of a boss he had who cautioned the miner of endangering a mule. When the miner asked about his safety, the boss replied "We can always hire another man, but you gotta buy that mule."

Coal mines kill Appalachia. They kill the people who carry our traditions, the people who pass down our knowledge and they decimate the hemlock trees and meadow phlox my Papaw loved so much. When we, as a society, have found ways to power our country in safer and less damaging ways, why are we opposing these advancements? The answer is that politicians like Joe Manchin (D-WV, whose family owns a coal company) and Andy Barr (R-KY, who has received $45,800 from coal companies this election cycle as of February 12) are looking toward the bottom line and not to the people of Appalachia, much like the coal companies have always done.  


bottom of page