The next ridge over from Jordon’s operation is Kanawha State Forest.
“I’ve got a church full of people who use that forest,” Jordon said. “When we got control, I promised those people I’d clean this place up.
He’s making good on that promise, too: From the front porch of that hunting shack, looking out over the mining and the earth-movers, an approaching autumn rain engulfs two forested knobs – artificial to be sure, and reclaimed from the mine, but growing anew nonetheless.
Rare well-paying jobs
Jordon’s story illustrates another fact of life in coal country every bit as stark as the denuded landscape around Gibson’s glade: Poverty.
Median income in the United States was almost $42,000 in 2000, the most recent data the U.S. Census has for nationwide earnings. In the 100 poorest counties - of which 38 lie in Appalachian coal country - the median was half that.
A typical household in Owsley County, in Kentucky’s eastern hills, brought home $16,271 in 2000; in McDowell County in West Virginia’s southern end, median earnings sat at $16,931.
The median income for a miner in 2000? $44,400, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In areas of the country where there are limited education and opportunities, men can live like kings and women can live like queens compared to their neighbors if they mine coal,” said LaJuana Wilcher, an attorney with English Lucas Priest & Owsley in Kentucky who was the state’s secretary of Environmental and Public Protection from 2003 to 2006.
Coal paid Kentucky $183 million in severance taxes in 2005 and $583 million in other state taxes - almost 10 percent of the state’s general fund for that year. That’s a lot of highways, hospitals, police officers and schoolrooms for poor states, Wilcher notes.
Big Coal also greases the political rails, contributing $2.6 million through mid-October to both sides in the presidential election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Pro-mining West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, crushed his opponents Tuesday.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Wilcher said. “You see Sen. (Robert) Byrd (D, W. Va.) and top Republicans all going together on this.”
That power gets used, cautioned Nelson, the veteran miner. He lost his job when Massey Coal, his employer, blew the top off his local ridge and left half an inch of dust coating the interior of his house. He spoke up and has been blacklisted ever since.
“You don’t work for Massey and say anything against the industry,” Nelson said. He can’t stay silent, but he understands those who do.
“People get in debt, they got mouths to feed. They’re afraid to take that step. They’re afraid to be left out in the cold, ‘cause there’s nothing here.”
Coal provides direct jobs for 22,000 miners in West Virginia and another 50,000 contractors, according to the Coal Association. It allows men like Jordon and Hackworth to stay in the hills where they grew up. And it feeds the nation’s appetite for cheap power.
Miners pulled 377 million tons of coal out of Appalachia in 2007, about a third of the nation’s total production. Carbon content varies in coal, but the nation’s appetite for the cinder adds 1.8 trillion tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually, according to a 2000 U.S. Energy Information Agency report.
And it’s increasing: Industry estimates that 1 billion more tons of coal will be burned worldwide come 2013.
Efforts to reverse that trend quickly run into an immutable wall: Price.