This interview was first published on September 18, 2020.
Appalachia is no stranger to the boom and bust cycle of extractive industries. The rise and fall of coal has left the region with economic insecurity that touches every part of life. “Appalachian Fall: Dispatches from Coal Country on What’s Ailing America,” is a new book by the journalists of the Ohio Valley Resource, which reports from West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
Jeff Young, managing editor of Ohio Valley ReSource, says the book’s title is a play on the iconic Aaron Copland song, “Appalachian Spring.” But it also echoes a thought he had as the team looked at health outcomes, measures of wealth and environmental issues in Appalachia. “It just kept striking me, we’re falling further behind…we’re falling further behind,” Young said.
The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Young and reporter Brittany Patterson about the book.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: The book is based on your reporting of issues facing Appalachia, many of which are tied to the coal industry. You mentioned the term from a rural development expert — resource curse — meaning Appalachia was blessed with this resource, coal, but never really benefited economically from it. Why is that?
Jeff Young: As economists explain it, it’s because the wealth is so closely tied to a single economic activity that no other efforts are really put into developing other things. An entrepreneurial middle class doesn’t really
have room to grow. There is typically under-investment in infrastructure and education.
There is very little diversification of the businesses that are in the community because everything is tied to that one resource, whether it’s oil or coal or gold or you name it. Then, when that one resource goes away, there’s very little resilience in the economy to turn the corner. That’s, in my opinion, a big part of what we’re facing in Appalachia, and Appalachian coal communities.
Holsopple: Brittany, you’ve reported on Coshocton County, Ohio, where the coal-fired power plant, American Electric Power’s Conesville power plant, was shut down ahead of schedule. It was a fixture there for decades, and its closure caused ripple effects in the community. So how did the closure impact power plant workers and others in the community, including schools?
Brittany Patterson: Coshocton is a really interesting case study in what we see when not only coal mining, which is something I think we often associate with the region, pulls back, but when coal-fired power plants start to close. We’ve seen so many coal fired power plants close in the last 15 years across the country, including in Ohio and West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
It’s not just that these good jobs are suddenly not there anymore. [The superintendent of] the River View Local School District, which literally overlooked the Conesville Power Plant, told me that once the plant is closed fully, which it is now, they were going to lose 10 percent of their budget. Then, there’s the fact that perhaps some of those students of those workers are going to move away. So it all just sort of drifts apart and out of a community when it loses something like this.
What I think is so interesting about Coshocton is this is a community that understood that reality was coming to them as the plant began to close down, and really wanted to look proactively at it. They said, ‘Okay, this has happened to us before.’ This is a community that lost a General Electric plant, a paper mill. They’d been here before. They said, ‘What can we do to try and mitigate the steps?’
That passion and that dedication to community and to this place — that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Part of that was trying to help workers at the plant work on their résumés, work on getting them jobs, try to keep them. Because I think what we’ve learned from researchers is, if you lose the people who work at these plants, and work at these mines, and they leave, they’re not going to come back. That’s really a death knell for a lot of these communities.
Holsopple: The petrochemical industry and other extractive industries are being touted by industry and some politicians as a saving grace for Appalachia, turning natural gas products into the building blocks of plastic, and creating jobs. But others in the region are working on ways to solve inequality, addiction, climate change. What are some of those initiatives that you’ve reported on?
Young: Well, my mind goes to a guy that we quote in the final chapter of the book, Peter Hille, who’s with the Mountain Association in eastern Kentucky. He points out that what we need are elegant solutions. We need solutions that address more than one problem at a time, because, as he puts it, ‘We’ve got so many problems here. If you’re just solving one at a time, you can’t keep up.’ So they’re looking for ways where you can tackle some small portion of the climate change question, and create jobs, and improve living conditions.
One, what they call a low-hanging fruit approach to that, is improving people’s homes through insulation and weatherization, and installing solar power, which now in the economics of our electric utility industry means they’ll get their electricity cheaper. They’ll spend less money to heat or cool their homes. So it creates jobs. It helps improve the housing stock, which is a portion of the inequality problem.
There are some forms of agriculture that can both work to improve mine land that’s been damaged from surface mining, and fix some carbon dioxide in the soil in the process through the growth of things like miscanthus. It is a fast growing tall grass that can be used for a variety of things, including generating electricity as a biofuel. So there are a lot of possibilities out there, and a lot of things that people are looking at.
America’s got to figure out transition for economies, and we need to do it right here in Appalachia, right now.
I think the question is, can they scale up to meet the challenge? Because a lot of people need jobs, and the service sector jobs that have been creating jobs are not providing the kind of pay and benefits that people find they can use to support a family.
Patterson: You know, I think this COVID-19 global pandemic has really illustrated the fact that retooling your economy to be an entirely service-based economy is really challenging, especially when something like this hits. That’s one of the reasons that I think we’re seeing such a coordinated interest in this idea of a just transition.
There have been multiple plans released by groups that have been working on this for a long time, but really sort of putting themselves out there as we approach this presidential race, saying, ‘Probably we’re going to do something on climate change, probably we’re going to do something about this COVID-19 pandemic again. And it’s probably going to cost lots and lots of money from the federal government. We here in Appalachia, we want a piece of that pie. We want a substantial piece of that pie. We want to make sure that we’re investing it in ways that really help rebuild the economy here.’ That’s what I think has been really fascinating.
Holsopple: You write in the book that Appalachia should be seen as part of America, not this strange, separate region with all of the stereotypes that we all know: “In fact, we argue that the resolution to many of America’s most pressing challenges lies in better understanding and addressing Appalachia’s conundrum.” What do you mean by that?
Young: Think, for example, of the closure of the power plant and the challenge that the community there in Coshocton County faces. They’re doing everything right in terms of providing worker training and education opportunities for people to try to find new jobs. But what we’ve learned from talking to people who have studied economic transition and the question of work training, is that isn’t insufficient. Training a worker for a job doesn’t create a job. It really puts the onus on the worker, and suddenly says ‘It’s kind of your fault. If only you’d better educate yourself or find a new skill.’ It also assumes some mobility on the worker’s part to go to wherever this mysterious new job might arise. That has not really worked well for Appalachia.
I argue that America has never really done transition very well. As steel towns and farm towns and now coal dependent towns are discovering, what that often means is you’re on your own.
Where I think Appalachia holds a lesson for the rest of the country is, if you look at the rate of technological change that we are likely to encounter in the coming decade or so–artificial intelligence, the rise of driverless vehicles, for example–there is absolutely no question that they are going to eliminate a lot of jobs. Now, they’ll probably create some other jobs. There’s a healthy debate about whether technology is a net job generator, a job creator.
I argue that America has never really done transition very well. We just kind of leave it to the market to figure out. As steel towns and farm towns and now coal dependent towns are discovering, what that often means is you’re on your own.
I don’t think that’s going to work anymore for America. I don’t think we can just treat communities as disposable because at a certain point, there’s a backlash. There’s a backlash in our politics that we can feel right now when a community feels left behind. That community becomes the ripe territory for demagogues and authoritarians who would take advantage of that.
So America’s got to figure out transition for economies, and we need to do it right here in Appalachia, right now. If we figure out how to do it well, I believe we become a model for other parts of America to follow when the rolling change and disruption of technology hits other communities.
Holsopple: Brittany, I know you’re from California, but you’ve been reporting here for several years. What have you learned about Appalachia through your reporting that surprised you, or that maybe changed your mind about this region?
Patterson: I think it’s the people, without a doubt. I have never met such hardworking and dedicated and passionate people. As an energy and environment reporter, it is kind of a bummer sometimes, to be totally honest. I’ve stood in front of massive coal ash ponds with a husband and wife team that have been fighting it for years. I’ve been to Superfund sites where most of the community has gotten cancer. Yet, there are these people who will invite me into their pickup trucks and take me around town and tell me, a reporter, for this 17 thousandth time, why I should care and why people should care about their communities. That passion and that dedication to community and to this place–that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.