Appalachia's Coal Industry Finds Itself Lost in Contradiction

THE JOURNAL RECORD, October 1, 1985 | Go to article overview

Appalachia's Coal Industry Finds Itself Lost in Contradiction


CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Appalachia's coal industry seems lost in contradiction.

Consider that West Virginia is producing record amounts of coal while the state leads the nation in unemployment with a 16 percent jobless rate, largely because so many miners have been laid off.

Consider that the companies which signed the 1984 contract with the United Mine Workers are enjoying unusually placid labor-management relations, while the UMW and the A.T. Massey Coal Co. are locked in one of the longest and most bitter disputes in union history.

""We had the highest production last year that we've had in the past 20 or 30 years, and the coal companies are doing very well,'' said Norman Kilpatrick, a coal market analyst.

""In general, production's up and productivity's up, so the companies are up. But markets are up only slightly and so jobs are down and that's where it's tough, because that means there's poverty in the midst of plenty.''

In some ways, the industry's problems echo those of the 1950s: technological changes in mining and in the industries fueled by coal have increased productivity - at the expense of miners' jobs.

But while markets for some coals, such as those used exclusively in steel-making, have disappeared almost entirely, new markets are opening as utilities change from oil to coal.

In 1979, some 175,000 coal miners produced 425 million tons of coal in the 13-state Appalachian region. By 1983, production was down slightly to 378 million tons, but employment had dropped to 126,000 miners.

West Virginia probably illustrates that trend best.

Last year, West Virginia produced nearly 131 million tons of coal, more than any year since 1970, but with only 41,300 miners.

Two decades before, the state had 120,000 miners producing 146 million tons of coal. Then began a technological revolution that replaced picks and shovels with continuous mining machines. At the same time, the nation's railroads swapped their coal-fired locomotives for diesel electrics, and a vast market for Appalachian coal disappeared for good.

Employment fell through the 1960s. By the late 1970s, however, the threat of Arab oil embargoes had convinced utilities that coal might prove a more dependable fuel. By 1980, employment was up to 55,000 and production to 122 million tons.

Since then, employment has plummeted again, reaching a low of 35,000 in 1983.

That declining job market worries Bill Oliver, 42, a mine machinist concerned he might be included in the next round of layoffs. He is supporting a 22-year-old son, Billy, who lost his job as a general mine laborer.

""We hear there are a lot of jobs down South,'' said Bonnie Oliver, Bill's wife, as she stared into her teacup as though soggy leaves might tell her future.

""And I know that for Billy to find work, he's going to have to leave here. My son is going to have to move and take his family away to find work. I know this, and it just kills me to think they'regoing to take that baby away.''

With anger edging her voice, Bonnie Oliver looked up at last and said, ""All this is forcing families apart. You just can't stay together anymore. You have to go where the work is.''

The despair is so intense because West Virginia's economy has been tied to coal for decades.

Half a century ago, one of every four non-agricultural workers was a coal miner. Last year, fewer than one in every 10 West Virginians toiled in the mines, according to the state department of employment security.

For the first time, wages earned in service industries now exceeds pay in the coal industry.

But coal, the ""black diamond'' that met the world's energy needs before oil and natural gas became popular, is far from dead. …

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