Ever since companies began extracting coal from the West Virginia hills, coal mining has been a way of life in many parts of the state. Generation after generation of miners descended into the earth in the morning and emerged again at twilight, covered with coal dust. This work fueled the American economy for many decades, but it also inflicted deep wounds on the region. Protesters have campaigned against the environmental costs of mining methods like mountaintop removal, including a recent high-profile protest during which actress Daryl Hannah and others were arrested, putting West Virginia coal mining in the international spotlight.
There are human costs as well, and according to West Virginia University’s Dr. Michael Hendryx, these costs far outweigh the economic benefits to the region. On June 26, Steve Curwood, host of the Public Radio International program Living on Earth interviewed Hendryx, the author of a new study that assesses the economic toll of coal mining on a community. Hendryx’s research in West Virginia shows that 10,000 excess deaths occur per year in mining areas than in non-mining areas. He estimates that the actual dollar value per year of those lost lives is between $42 and $80 billion, while the coal industry brings only about $8 billion yearly to the region. The study attributes these excess deaths to higher rates of poverty, environmental exposures, and pollution in mining communities. Listen to the interview and read a transcript at the Living on Earth website.
In a region long defined by the coal industry, mining work is increasingly hard to find, as new methods require fewer workers. In some areas, left economically crippled by the changing times, life is marked by chronic poverty, that passes through the generations like the mining jobs once did. Ken Light and Melanie Light, in the documentary tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, visited West Virginia’s forgotten towns and rambling hills, interviewing and photographing the people there. The Lights collected stories from retired miners, a city mayor and a coal industry employer, a snake handler, a grandmother who supported her family by restoring and reselling discarded items, and other remarkable residents of all perspectives and backgrounds. In their book Coal Hollow, the people of the West Virginia coal mining legacy tell their own stories, in their own voices, and together they paint a stark and moving living history. The video segment (under “audio/video”) includes some of the striking images from the book, an interview with photographer Ken Light, and indigenous music and interview excerpts recorded by Melanie Light.