Donald Trump says he's ended the "war on coal," and for some people in Appalachia, that's everything.
"Trump wins in November and almost instantly ignites a new sense of optimism and confidence within our industry," said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "There's this sense we can recover from this—maybe not a capital-R recovery, but we can show some gains here."
Already, if they look hard enough, Trump fans can point to numbers teasing a small-"r" recovery in what might be America's most romanticized stretch of heartland. Through April 8, year-to-date domestic coal production—the lifeblood of the economy here—was roughly 16 percent higher than over the same stretch in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Of course, tracing a statistical blip to the policies of brand-new president is a dangerous game, as growth in production and hiring started before Trump's inauguration and indeed even before the 2016 election.
"We're continuing to grow our production a little bit, but nothing in leaps and bounds," said Southern Coal Corporation president and CEO Jay Justice, who added, "I don't know if there's really been anything substantive that's really changed, but the perception that there's not a combative administration in office makes a lot of people just feel better about it."
Perception over substance may prove something of a theme around here. So far, the president has handed down an executive order rolling back the greenhouse gas–capping Clean Power Plan and signed a law passed by Congress to repeal the so-called Stream Protection Rule, both of which would have imposed new burdens on coal companies in Appalachia. Earlier this month, his administration also stopped another regulation to require coal-burning power plants to use the latest technology to strip lead, arsenic, mercury, and other toxins from wastewater. None of these rules were ever actually implemented, so to some extent Trump's simply carrying water for the status quo.
And the cold, hard reality of the matter is that Washington probably doesn't have the power or will to rejuvenate the coal industry with which Appalachia is often thought to be synonymous. After all, in response to a flood of cheap, hydraulically fracked natural gas and falling costs of renewable energy, electric utilities have shifted away from coal in recent years. Executives at Appalachian Power, which covers 1 million customers in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee, say they've built their final coal-fired plant and have been trying to develop a renewable energy portfolio of solar and wind power.
But even as the much-diminished coal industry continues to dominate discussion of Appalachian politics, its cultural footprint well outstrips its actual economic impact. That's partly because many regional legacy industries such as equipment manufacturing and the railroad are directly affected by coal. And the GOP successfully weaponized "war on coal" messaging during Barack Obama's presidency, accelerating a regional tilt to the GOP that peaked with Hillary Clinton's remark, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?"
Combined with the intangibles in any given voter's heart—racial resentment, religious faith, a desire for unlimited gun rights, or a simple desire to punch the Establishment in the mouth—a decades-long shift away from Democrats reached fever pitch in the last election. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton 63 percent to 33 percent in Appalachia, winning more than 90 percent of its counties.
"He found an audience that loves him, and he learned how to speak to that audience," said Nick Mullins, a fifth-generation former miner who now works to help organizations better communicate with working-class Appalachians about transitioning from extractive industries.
Watch the VICE News Tonight segment on the way forward for one community in West Virginia that doesn't involve going back to the coal mines.
Still, the president is hardly universally popular here. In West Virginia, 43 percent of registered voters didn't even cast a ballot on November 8, meaning more people stayed home than voted for Trump. The same day, billionaire coal baron, resort owner, and Democrat Jim Justice—Jay Justice's father—easily won election as West Virginia governor. He now faces a half billion dollar hole in the state budget, along with a roughly 17.5 percent poverty rate, seventh worst in the country.
And despite the cultural emphasis on coal, communities across West Virginia and greater Appalachia recognize the need to find a new way of life. Roanoke, Virginia, a Blue Ridge town outside the coalfields, historically relied on the coal-related railroad industry but in recent years rebranded itself as a forward-thinking outdoor and beer town. After the railroad closed its final administrative offices in the city, the Roanoke Valley region landed production facilities for two West Coast breweries, as well as an Italian auto-parts manufacturer.
Other, more rural communities have struggled to find their way. Wise County, which sits amid southwestern Virginia's coalfields, has worked since the early 1990s to line up the pieces for a business technology park. It relied on the Appalachian Regional Commission—which, somewhat bizarrely, is on Trump's budgetary chopping block—for a variety of projects to shore up the county's water and sewer systems. Officials graded sites, lined up broadband internet service, and figured out how to deal with soil compaction issues stemming from the fact the park was built on a former surface mine.
Twenty-five years later, the effort is starting to pay off, with five businesses employing 750 people, and hundreds of acres yet to be developed. Of course, it's quite possible that some of those new employees were among the hundreds of miners laid off in the last few years, and if so, they've likely taken a pay cut: The jobs at a local communications service center, for example, pay about $35,000—a decent living wage but far less than what one can make in the mines.
Meanwhile, many people are struggling just to hold onto what they've got. Sharp declines in coal severance tax revenue and shrinking populations have cut into state and local budgets, which hurts public schools and has ripple effects for young workers. And for all his talk about investing in new infrastructure, the Trump administration's budget proposal guts a number of federal programs crucial to regional economic development, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture's infrastructure budget. The White House argues that economic growth will do more to boost Appalachia than government programs, but the cuts, if enacted, could immediately reduce quality of life and hurt the environment.
"Those programs are crucial to everybody in the Appalachian region," said Amy Swann, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association. "To me, it is astonishing that the president and his advisers don't understand those simple concepts when it comes to water and wastewater treatment."
Trump's budget would also cut nearly $2 billion from the Energy Department, potentially including research on so-called clean coal technology, which the president has touted as a path forward. That proposed cut inspired a letter from three large coal companies and the United Mine Workers of America asking him to reconsider.
But so far, at least, many here seem willing hold out hope that the president they embraced in the ballot box will do what decades of national politicians have failed or not even attempted: Bring them back into the mainstream of American economic life.
"To me, it's obvious that West Virginia at this point is optimistic that good things are coming, and it's rather dismayed that a lot of people in the country can't accept the fact that the American voters spoke," said Oak Hill City manager Bill Hannabass, who's building a wastewater management system thanks in part to some of the very federal programs Trump would cut. "It's nice to have someone in the White House who's a friend of coal. But that optimism will die down quickly if there's not a shift, if there are not more opportunities for gainful employment."
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