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The Hills Have Coal - Why Coal Is A Destructive Force In West Virginia

Updated on January 7, 2015

Poverty and West Virginia are unfortunately as well acquainted as a desert is with drought. In a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report, 1 in 4 children in the state were classified as being under the federal poverty threshold, an increase from previous years.

U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2013)
U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2013)

Poverty everywhere, not just in West Virginia, is a socioeconomic sickness that is a direct reflection of the inadequacies of established regions, governments, people, and regulations. It is the mark of narrow minded thinking to raise the question of a singular cause to such a chaotic and complex issue, as there is none. There are, however, many entities in society that contribute to poverty in negative or positive degrees. The question ultimately becomes, particularly with West Virginia, what are the leading negative contributions? In this article, I will examine the controversial relationship with poverty and coal, particularly how coal affects local economies and the quality of life. By examining multiple studies that empirically provide solid data as to the destruction coal causes, and by countering claims thay propose the necessity of coal in the state, I conclude that industrial coal in West Virginia is significantly responsible for the state's poverty and coal companies should take active steps to mitigate further damage.

Before one makes a conclusion or case on the relationship with poverty in West Virginia and anything, the immediate logical step should be to examine what precisely poverty is defined to be, and how it is measured. In the United States, there are two major standards to measure poverty: poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines. Poverty thresholds are a statistical quantifier created by the U.S. Census Bureau to count the number of households of a given size with insufficientpre-tax cash income to meet minimal food and other basic needs. The specific needs and minimum amount depends on the household size and the individuals that live in the household. Additionally, it is important to make clear that the poverty threshold is only used for statistical purposes; federal need-based aid organizations do not make use of threshold data to determine who receives aid. Poverty guidelines, however, is a metric designed specifically for the purpose of determining eligibility for federal aid. The United States Department of Health and Human Services annually releases a series of income minimums corresponding with household size for the contiguous United States. When a household of a specific size falls below the annually defined minimum income to afford food and basic needs, federal aid can be awarded. Since the poverty threshold is the only metric used for statistical purposes, it is the primary metric of the two that I will examine.

It is universally agreed that coal has a large socioeconomic impact on West Virginia, but how much is it responsible for the current state of poverty, if at all? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 17.6% of West Virginians in 2008-2012 lived below the poverty threshold, nearly three percent below the nation’s average, making West Virginia the state with the sixth highest percentage of those below the poverty threshold. This percentage, however, is that of West Virginia overall. A much darker story becomes apparent when individual regions of the state are analyzed individually. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida showed a persistently strong correlation between the mere presence of mining and high poverty threshold percentages. The ten counties with the highest coal production all had poverty thresholds of over 20%, capping off with the famously economically downwards McDowell County at 33.5% (Perdue & Pavela 3). Naturally, such a correlation does not necessitate a large causal responsibility of poverty towards coal. It does, however, provide evidence in support of what might be a causal relationship, we simply have to examine other pieces of evidence. One commonly proposed explanation as to why high coal production regions have recently subjected to unusually high poverty involves the general decline of coal, the long term economic cash cow of the state. Over the past decade, due to low natural gas prices, rising labor costs, economic competition, and stricter environmental regulations, coal production in West Virginia dropped from 180.8 million tons in 1998 to 139.4 million tons in 2011 (O'Leary & Boettner Figure 5.3).

Figure 5.3, The State of Working West Virginia 2012
Figure 5.3, The State of Working West Virginia 2012

A general retort to this might be that it isn't coal's fault that the economy is rapidly becoming less favorable for its production, it's the fault of policymakers for failing to make coal more competitive or to implement other methods to pick up the economic slack coal is enduring. I definitely concede that the policymakers deserve part of the blame for not making any changes, however, lobbying by coal companies is a huge obstacle in the road for policymakers, or at least, a strong discourager for moving around said obstacle. In 2013, a total of nearly 12 million dollars was spent by coal companies for the purpose of lobbying for coal and against whichever legislation they desired (Public Records 2014 Database). Any conclusion that it is the sole fault of the policymaker and not the shared fault of coal companies, is nothing more than a generalized shifting of blame from coal companies to policymakers, and is ultimately unjustified.

Since poverty is a complex socioeconomic issue, one should investigate potential indirect correlations with poverty in an attempt to draw parallels with coal, such as public health. In a study led by West Virginia University Department of Community Medicine Professor Michael Hendryx, a strong correlation was shown for mountaintop mining areas and higher mortality rates for people living near the mining areas. Hendryx shows a large difference in mortality rates in regions that actively use mountaintop removal for extraction, and those that do not, nearing an average difference of 11% from 2000 to 2007 (Table 1).

Michael Hendryx, West Virginia University, 2011
Michael Hendryx, West Virginia University, 2011

Hendryx concludes that the increase in mortality is contributed by the negative health effects of mountaintop removal, of which strongly correlates with poverty rates in West Virginia. While Hendryx's research seems initially shocking at a superficial level, there are a few glaring rebuttals one might make. First, Hendryx's study only finds a significant trend with mountaintop removal, not with surface mining. One might conclude that he has not targeted coal industries, just mountaintop removal. Such a claim wouldn't hold weight, because mountaintop removal is a prevalent method of coal extraction in West Virginia, even in spite of the evidence that it destroys public health, correlates with a sharp increase in cancer in mined regions, and wreaks havoc on undisturbed ecologies (J.O. Britton p. 125). It is the active choice of the coal companies to continue this method in spite of the reasons why not to, which doesn't give them a justifiable reason to escape accountability. Secondly, one might question how justified a potential correlation between high poverty and high mortality truly is. One might take that a step further and question the lack of well established empirical evidence towards a potential causal relationship, granting coal independence. A NIH funded Epidemiology research group at Columbia University found strong correlations between deaths in the United States and poverty or income inequality (Galea 1). Dr. Sandro Galea, head of the research group points out in an interview that “Social causes can be linked to death as readily as can pathophysiological and behavioral causes,” citing deaths attributable to poverty and poverty related socioeconomic issues as comparable in number to widespread causes of death, such as heart attacks (Columbia Epidemiology). The evidence for the causal influence between poverty and mortality is clear and coal companies should not get a free pass for having a negative effect on both, negative or not.

As stated before, poverty is a socioeconomic issue, and as such, one should investigate the social aspects that coal may contribute to and whether or not that negatively affects poverty in West Virginia. In a 2009 sociology research article, Shannon Bell surveys participants from coal-mining towns in the state and comparable towns that do not participate in coal mining. Her results suggested a general decline in social capital, or the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. The notion of social capital, however, is difficult to pin down to anything in particular. One may feel that any account of what makes categorizes as good or bad social capital is arbitrary. While I can understand such a feeling, there is still much to be learned from such a study particularly in light of other metrics. For the past five years, West Virginia was ranked dead last in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, being dubbed as "the most miserable state in the country" by a few journalists. The widespread misery in addition to the data collected by Dr. Bell reinforces the notion of coal's responsibility with damaging the social environment. The weakest part of this argument is dependent on the principle that misery is causally linked to poverty rates, which intuitively sounds true, but has little data to support it. Regardless, this provides more evidence towards the irresponsibility rather than against.

One of the most common retorts in the face of established evidence towards the destructive nature of coal on the economy involves an assurance that there is nothing else to support the state's economy. Such a notion, however, is ultimately unfounded. As previously mentioned studies have shown, it is counter-intuitively more economically advantageous in terms of poverty to have no coal production than widespread coal production. Furthermore, alternative sources of energy that do not damage health, social capital, and financial stability of citizens are ready to power the state. In early 2011, Stanford University researchers developed a series of studies debunking the myth that wind, water, and solar energy cannot be technologically implemented worldwide nor would they be economically competitive (Jacobson 1). By drawing up a roadmap of global implementation, the researchers concluded that the barriers to the implementation of mass usage of alternative sources of energy are not economic or technological, rather they are primarily social and political. .

The evidence towards the general downwards trend of coal is expected to continue, and whether or not the deterioration of coal industries helps or hurts mined regions, a great duty remains for policymakers and coal companies. Many West Virginians are suffering as a result of coal lobbying out competitive forms of employment, health issues due to massive amounts of pollution through mountaintop removal, and overwhelming misery as a result of the destruction coal has caused, economically and environmentally. The evidence is there to strongly associate coal with poverty, and no counter-arguments justify its escape from responsibility. Those involved with persisting coal throughout the years are partially responsible for the widespread poverty throughout the state, brought on by an array of factors, all damaging the state. While act of moral decency to repair the state by policymakers and coal companies is not likely, they should be more compassionate about the daily suffering of poverty stricken West Virginians actively caused by huge coal companies.


(1) U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). State & county Quickfacts: West Virginia

Perdue, Robert Todd, and Gregory Pavela. "Addictive Economies and Coal Dependency Methods of Extraction and Socioeconomic Outcomes in West Virginia, 1997-2009." Organization & Environment 25.4

(3) O'Leary, Sean, and Ted Boettner, "The State of Working West Virginia 2012: In Depth: The Gas Boom and Coal Bust" West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy

(4) U.S. Senate. (2014). Public Records, Lobbying Database

(5) Hendryx, Michael, (2011). "Poverty and Mortality Disparities in Central Appalachia:Mountaintop Mining and Environmental Justice" Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice

(6) J. O. Britton, (2007). "West Virginia", Mining Engineering

(7) Galea, Sandro, (2011). "Estimated deaths attributable to social factors in the United States." American Journal of Public Health

(8) Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. (2009.) "“There Ain’t No Bond in Town Like There Used to Be”: The Destruction of Social Capital in the West Virginia Coalfields1." Sociological Forum.

(9). Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index (2013). " State of American Well-Being"

(10) Delucchi, Mark A., and Mark Z. Jacobson. (2011). "Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies." Energy Policy

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