I just returned from a visit to my birthplace in Harlan County, Kentucky, which lies in the southeast corner of the state. It’s near the Cumberland Gap, where Daniel Boone began his exploration of what was then the American frontier. The Appalachian Mountain region of southeastern Kentucky, where Harlan lies, has much in common with western Pennsylvania, including its coal-mining heritage.
The birthplace of Bluegrass music, Harlan is a mountainous county populated by a rugged, proud breed of people. Numerous residents can trace their roots to Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Many of their ancestors came to Harlan seeking work in the coal mines or railroads.
Despite its proud history, Harlan is a distressed place today. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the county’s official unemployment rate for March 2014 as
16.8 percent. This figure doesn’t take into account the many whose unemployment benefits have expired.
Judging by my recent observations and research, unemployment there is probably closer to 30 percent. It would be higher if not for those employed by the county’s medical center. Black lung and other respiratory diseases associated with mining abound in the region and promise to keep the medical field booming for years to come.
Despite still having large reserves of some of the nation’s best anthracite coal, the high-quality kind used to make good steel, only two of the coal mines are fully operational today, according to several individuals with whom I spoke. Harlan’s coal-mining industry has suffered for two primary reasons: Stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulation of the electric power generation industry, which uses coal as its primary fuel source, has caused a nationwide shift toward natural gas; and the new coal boom in Wyoming.
The seams of coal lying under Wyoming, some of which are up to 60 feet thick, are much easier and cheaper to mine, meaning Wyoming’s coal is generally a better bargain than Kentucky’s, even with transportation costs included. About 93 percent of Kentucky’s electricity is produced at coal-fired power plants. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is cheaper for the utility companies that own the Kentucky plants to buy coal from Wyoming.
There is a local perception that the Obama administration is out to destroy the coal industry. Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell is staking his re-election on his support for coal, a theme that will play very well for politicians in a number of states come November. It plays particularly well in southeastern Kentucky, because there are few viable, legal employment alternatives for coal miners who lose their jobs. One can always build his own meth lab or grow marijuana, but there are few other possibilities.
Marijuana farming appears to be a popular alternative to mainstream jobs, as evidenced by the occasional dark-colored helicopter seen flying overhead. A local resident told me the helicopters contain Drug Enforcement Agency agents searching for marijuana fields.
About 20 percent of Kentucky’s population is on food stamps. In Harlan County, it’s closer to 30 percent. One can see the stress on the faces of the Harlan people when walking through Wal-Mart or the local grocery stores. There are numerous small children with their teeth rotting and many young, toothless adults. Meth addiction is also a big problem, as evidenced by the numerous cases of “meth mouth” in the area.
Were it not for the federally funded school-meal programs, many of the kids would be seriously undernourished. As it is, there is still a large, underfed population of children. Of course, the problem is bigger than Harlan. Similar situations exist throughout the state’s eastern Appalachian region.
As I was departing the area to return home to Pennsylvania, I got behind a school bus on its treacherous, winding route up Pine Mountain, in neighboring Letcher County. From my vantage point, two cars back in line, I could observe the children boarding the bus. At one stop, I saw three little girls scramble to the bus from a small, dilapidated trailer by a creek. It didn’t appear suitable for raising livestock. Similar scenes are common in the region.
As the coal industry goes, so goes Harlan and most of southeastern Kentucky. America needs to wean itself from coal in favor of cleaner, renewable energy sources. I get it. But the political debate should center on how to do this without inflicting unbearable human suffering on our fellow Americans, not on “saving the planet.”
Americans can’t save the planet singlehandedly. According to a Reuters article on Jan. 7, “China approved the construction of more than 100 million tons of new coal production capacity in 2013 – six times more than a year earlier and equal to
10 percent of U.S. annual usage – flying in the face of plans to tackle choking air pollution.” Germany and India are also increasing their reliance on coal, according to the World Resource Institute.
Here at home, stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulations for existing coal-fired power plants are scheduled for release on June 1. Like many other federal regulations, these were born of mainly ideological motives, without proper consideration of unintended consequences.
While this may not be the final straw for Harlan, it will drive electricity generation costs even higher – a blow that will be felt in Harlan and beyond given the stagnant economy.
If I had the means, I’d rent a room and move to Harlan for a year to interview locals, take photos and write a pictorial book about the situation. The peoples’ faces remind me of pictures I’ve seen of American prairie dwellers during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. Someone should document this tragedy for future generations.
We should never be allowed to forget what’s happening there. No jobs, not enough to eat and little hope in Harlan County.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.