It’s been nearly 9 years since I took my first trip as an adult to Appalachia. My now-wife, then girlfriend, had a summer internship at a little church in the region. So one weekend I left the cornfields of Indiana in my Honda, bound southeast. I had plenty of visions in mind of where I was heading, most notably “Coal Country”. I’d heard about the mountaintop removals Tim wrote about back in February and braced myself for jarring landscapes as I crossed Kentucky on I-64. And as I neared the Kentucky-West Virginia state line, I saw it: Mordor. The vast expanse of concrete, pipes, holding tanks, and smokestacks out my car window made me fear for the next 3 hours of driving.
But as I passed through Huntington and weaved my way southward, I was struck again, not with fear, but with sheer beauty. Lush forests, towering peaks, and a roaming river that made my heart swell. Eventually my image of Mordor faded as I exited the interstate to be wowed again by the rolling valleys I could see from the scenic overlooks. And the time I spent visiting my girlfriend caused those images of “Coal Country” to fade even more. Instead, I was endeared with the welcome of the little church. I cheered and shivered with what seemed to be the whole town at a July Mariners’ game. Strangers greeted me with a smile and a “hello” when I went to the library to use the internet. And there was even a sushi restaurant that rivaled the urban storefront sushi bars I was used to. When I left town, I was headed southward and forgot about Mordor, my images of coal country.
Then 5 years ago, we returned to that same town to settle in. Pulaski quickly felt like home, meeting friendly neighbors the same day we moved in. Wandering the hilly streets with our dog. Letting our heart rates slow to a calmer pace of life in a small town. I still didn’t see coal in this county of farmland, mountains, and warm people. The thought that we even had a stake in the image of “Coal Country” didn’t hit me until the 2012 election ads revved up on TV. Suddenly, the “War on Coal” was thrust into my consciousness, as confused as I was by it.
Side Benefits of Coal
Of course, any historian in town could refute my naivety about coal’s impact on our community, but I’d argue that it was more a side benefit. Sure, some coal was mined in the hills of Pulaski in the 1800s. Parrot was once home to two coal mines, but meager production ended in the 1950s. Pulaski instead thrived from “Coal Country” keeping a bit more distance from us. The railroad needed to transport it to the coast became a life vein for our community.
Our town bloomed with the industries that needed the trains: iron smelting and casting, manufacturing furniture and textiles, goods to be sped out into the marketplace. Past the Parrot mines, the old DBT/Bucyrus/Caterpillar plant was our most direct connection to the coal that defines Appalachia. And even that equipment was mostly headed out of town. Pulaski became a plucky, industrious community, not bound to a single resource or product.
Two years after we arrived, Caterpillar announced they were closing up shop. Taking the last remnant of “Coal Country” with them up to Pennsylvania. Pulaski suffered from the loss, and we have dear friends who were transferred or laid off in the closing. As my brother would be quick to note, I’m no expert at economics. But it’s easy to understand why we lost our plant, that last smudge of coal production in Pulaski. We’ve simply left “Coal Country”. The supply isn’t here anymore, and the hollow promises of politicians won’t bring it back. You can see it in these maps comparing our coal deposits to Pennsylvania’s (yellow and pink shading) and Wyoming’s (orange shading). The coalfields in the lowest tip of our state are dwarfed by production from Western and Northern mines.
And even as “Coal Country” moves farther from our reach, we still hear battle cries of the “War on Coal” every election cycle. These cries of a regulatory war seem to make up a political smokescreen. If anything, we are in an “energy race”, much like the “Space Race” of my parents’ childhood. And we are falling behind in it. In two years, the largest coal plant out West, the Navajo Generating Station, will close down. They just can’t compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources California and Nevada are opting to use.
But even that news is paled in comparison to the closing of Beijing’s last coal plant this month. The city of 25 million people has become the first in China to kick the coal habit, relying solely on natural gas, solar, and wind for their power and heat. The Premier has pledged to “Make China’s Sky Blue Again” by cutting coal-based energy consumption to 58% by 2020 (compared to APCO’s recent mailer that customer electricity is nearly 80% coal-generated). If achieved, this campaign will make China the global leader in the race toward cleaner energy production.
So, as the world leaves “Coal Country”, what do we Pulaskians do? While we can’t shake our past as a town that grew from the amenities coal required, we can steer our future. Instead of a town of unemployed miners, we are already a community of teachers and healthcare professionals, skilled machinists and small business owners. We still have the pluck to adapt to new manufacturing industries, whether trucks or tomatoes. Maybe, if we look to our neighbors in the New River Valley to help form a new identity, we will find even richer partnerships in research and production. Our community college already trains students for a new economy of pipe welding and photo-voltaic manufacture. And the ideas being produced at Virginia Tech could be brought to Pulaski as an incubator for applying new technologies, even to small town life. Maybe leaving “Coal Country” won’t be so hard after all.
PS – Even my vision of Mordor turned out to be an oil refinery. Guess I haven’t seen any of “Coal Country” yet.