The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

October 7, 2012

In coal country, show of solidarity takes root

MORGANTOWN — Coal country is hurting, and the people who live there want the whole nation to know it.

Thousands of miners have been laid off this year across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, many with little hope of getting their jobs back as power plants and the coal mines that once fed them shut down. Now the families, friends and business operators who depend on those miners are planning a multi-state show of solidarity they hope will be heard in Washington, D.C., and beyond.

“No one really hears our voices down here and knows what’s going on,” says 28-year-old coal miner’s wife Tracy Miller of Keokee, Va.

She’s working to change that.

If all goes as planned, huge crowds wearing miners’ stripes and fluorescent “United for Coal” T-shirts will line up Oct. 13 along U.S. Highway 23 from Big Stone Gap, Va., through Paintsville, Ky., and toward Chillicothe, Ohio. They will stretch north on U.S. 119 from Pikeville, Ky., toward Williamson, W.Va.

Some call it “Hands Across Coal Country.” In Virginia, it’s a “Prayer Chain.” But everyone knows what it’s for: It’s to show the rest of America the people behind the headlines from a faraway place.

“Hopefully it’s an inspiring and uplifting event for the people who were laid off,” says 32-year-old Shana Lucas, wife of a coal miner in Wise, Va. “It’s just a way as a community to say, ‘We can’t stop anything. We can’t do anything to prevent this from happening to you, but we can stand up for you. We can form a line three states long to show you we care.”’

The industry was already enduring a seasonal downturn after a warm winter that kept demand for coal low. It faces growing competition from cheap, abundant natural gas. And it was struggling with the Environmental Protection Agency’s crackdown on permitting for mountaintop removal mines and tougher clean-water standards.

Then old, inefficient power plants started shutting down, too, cutting off a traditional market for Appalachian steam coal.

Operators had to adjust, and that translated to layoffs — 800 alone last month when Alpha Natural Resources shut down eight Appalachian mines. That means fewer working miners, spending less in stores, giving less to relatives in need and struggling to find new jobs.

“I’m not a very political person,” says Miller, who’s planning to take her 5- and 10-year-old children to the demonstration. “I don’t want this prayer chain to turn into politics. But the EPA has absolutely destroyed our way of life.”

She and other organizers are expecting a huge turnout from people who feel the same.

Jesse Bowling, tourism director for the city of Pikeville, says his town of 6,900 is hosting a free concert for the miners and preparing for a crowd of as many as 50,000.

“It’s to help them and show them we’re proud of them and we care about them and we support them,” he says. “And we’ll continue to do so.”

Unlike many coal demonstrations, this one isn’t orchestrated by companies or trade associations. United for Coal is a grass-roots initiative, promoted largely on Facebook by people who are directly affected.

“In Washington, that gets lost in translation sometimes. These layoffs affect families — wives, mothers, grandmothers, kids, grandkids,” says Jesse Salyer, the 52-year-old president of a Pikeville energy company that leases land and mineral rights to coal operators. “It’s just a real miserable time here in the coalfields.

“Ninety-five percent of the people doing this have not met each other, don’t know each other and are just doing this to — for at least one day — give some attention to the miners.”

The idea started with Allen Gibson, a 60-year-old disabled surface miner from Elkhorn City, Ky.

An elderly woman who lives on $205 a month in Social Security income told him she’d always gotten by, thanks to support from five sons who were coal miners. Now, four are unemployed.

“She wasn’t complaining that she couldn’t get the medicines she needed,” Gibson says. “She was worried about her sons. She said, ‘If the coal jobs run out, they won’t have jobs, and they won’t be able to support their children.’

“This is not a Democrat or a Republican thing,” he says. “It’s a moral thing.”

But there is little doubt that United for Coal is also a political event. Posts on every state’s page are heavy with anti-Obama sentiment.

Gibson says state and federal governments have failed the coalfields, and he blames politicians at every level for the failure to bring economic diversity to the region.

“They have ignored us,” he says. “And we are going to be a voice. Even if we have to take everyone in this lineup to Washington, we are going to be a voice.”

United for Coal, he says, has the potential to become a national movement.

“If the politicians want us to stay off their backs, then they better get off their hind ends and do something,” Gibson says. “It’s not going to end with a bunch of people standing on the side of the road.”

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