Regardless of the deleterious effects of coal on climate and countryside, there is a human toll of our botched approach to moving out of fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. The Appalachian Regional Commission has identified 78 counties across its area as economically distressed, meaning they rank among the most impoverished 10 percent of counties in the nation. Eighteen are in West Virginia and 42 are in eastern Kentucky. In Wyoming, the coal mining sector has shed tens of thousands of jobs since 2014. Hundreds of high-paying mining and coal burning jobs were lost in the Navajo Nation with the 2019 shut down of the Navajo Generating Station, the nation’s largest coal-fired power plant, after nearly 50 years (Courier-Journal).
Many people living in the former coal mining regions are being abandoned to their fate by their former employers, who have taken the money and run by closing up shop and declaring bankruptcy. There are many possible solutions to this situation. For example,
- First, bankruptcy and corporate organization laws should be revised to require companies to pay severance to abandoned workers ahead of any disbursements to management or shareholders.
- Second, the depressed areas should get the right of first refusal on national and state subsidies for the construction of new clean-energy manufacturing and distribution firms and for worker retraining and community redevelopment.
Two of my great-grandfathers, both immigrants, were coal miners for part of their lives, and one of my great-uncles was unambiguously exploited as a child laborer, but they moved on to other work that set the stage for me to have the leisure to sit here typing this. I know that with planning most families could follow similar paths. All of us should be willing to give a little that those who have served us well might gain a lot. From a human perspective, drinking cleaner water and breathing cleaner air is just a bonus.