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Environmental Justice: What Happens After the Mines Close?

posted Apr 24, 2019, 2:13 PM by Rahni Sumler   [ updated Apr 24, 2019, 2:14 PM ]
Reposted from Monica Potts at Sierra magazine

For the people of Harlan County, Kentucky, climate change brings about a specific sort of cultural and economic disorientation: The coal-mining industry they have relied on for decades is no longer viable. Now former coal mining towns are plotting how to reinvent themselves. 

Brookside Strike: Coal Mining Culture of Harlan County

For 100 years, the economy of Harlan County and other counties in eastern Kentucky depended on coal mining. The sign depicted was posted by UMWA picketers during the Brookside Mine Strike of the 1970s. This strike became what the county was known for through, serving as the subject of the film, Harlan County, USA (1976)and another dramatic film called the Harlan County War (2000). It was a long and sometimes violent strike that ended when a man was shot and killed on the picket line. 
The latter-twentieth-century decline of coal production and employment has led to widespread poverty and high unemployment.
Image attributed to Jack Corn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.   

THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN in Kentucky, Black Mountain, straddles the border between Virginia and the Bluegrass State, and from its summit, the views stretch to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to the south. Beneath Black Mountain, three small Kentucky towns—Cumberland, Benham, and Lynch—line up along a two-lane highway that winds through a narrow, vine-covered valley split by a small stream called Looney Creek. For 15-year-old Cumberland native Chase Gladson, this is the best place on Earth. His friends can't wait to go to Lexington for college—the University of Kentucky, home of the Wildcats. Gladson is different. "I want to stay here," he said.

He gestured to the mountains above, Black Mountain and two of its neighbors—Little Black Mountain and Pine Mountain. Gladson is a tall, sturdy teenager with a mop of curly blond hair gathered in a ponytail. He wears thick glasses and speaks with a soft, sure voice and a slight twang. He sighed as he began an emotional tribute to his hometown. "It's home, and I love it here," he said. "I think there's a lot of potential here, and it's just so beautiful. . . . It's just where my heart is."

We were sitting on a patio in front of the old schoolhouse, now a hotel, in Benham. International Harvester, an agricultural-equipment manufacturer that went out of business in the 1980s, built the schoolhouse, which sits on the side of a hill. The company also built the three small brick buildings we were looking down on: an old commissary that is now the Kentucky Coal Museum and two other structures that have been repurposed as a convenience store and the City Hall. International Harvester built the roads themselves, all the infrastructure that lies beneath the town, and the houses that line the side streets before the town gives way to the pine-covered mountain. The company made all these investments a century ago because it needed the coal found in this corner of Kentucky to fuel its manufacturing lines. Without coal, Benham, as it is, wouldn't exist.