‘Central Appalachia is in mourning:’ New radio documentary details grief of losing coal in the region

Shane Lucas

Photo by: Catherine Moore, Beauty Mountain Studio

“All over Appalachia, people are in different stages of mourning this thing that’s put dinner on the table and shaped culture for as long. Some are even starting to talk about transition – about Appalachia past coal.”

So starts a piece from a new radio documentary airing nationally this spring, “Moving On But No Way Gone: Coal in America.” This particular piece was produced by West Virginia’s Catherine Moore (of Beauty Mountain Studio in West Virginia), who looked at what sort of transition is actually happening in Central Appalachia. Here’s the set up for her 8-minute piece, “Building Barns out of Coal Tipples: Appalachia’s Shifting Economy:”

Since the days when mules carted coal and miners were paid in company credit, coal has certainly been king in Central Appalachia. But now, in a trend not widely noted outside the region, far fewer people make a living in mining there. West Virginia, for example, had 132,000 miners in 1950. Today there are fewer than 20,000, and that number is falling. Nearly every day, Appalachians awake to news of mass layoffs and mine closures.

It’s no one thing. There is cheap and newly-abundant natural gas. Limits on coal-burning power plants. Increased competition from Wyoming, where coal is cheaper to mine and lower in polluting sulfur. And finally, after over 100 years of intensive mining, Appalachia’s coal seams are simply becoming mined out.

Producer Catherine Moore has witnessed this moment. She travelled the back roads of West Virginia from county to county, like Logan, where about 130 laid off miners from Patriot Coal gathered with their families for an emergency meeting held by the state’s workforce development program. Each miner was given a booklet called Surviving a Layoff. Inside, how to write a resume, give a good interview. But something else caught Catherine up short.

The full radio documentary will be 30 minutes, and share stories from across the country, and was commissioned by High Plains News. But, it’s Moore who delves into what we face here in Appalachia: the grief of losing such an integral piece of our economy and our culture.

“Central Appalachia is in mourning,” she narrates. “People are working through a loss, reassessing their place in the world, trying to figure out what happens next.”

One of those trying to figure it all out, is former surface miner and current small-scale farmer in Letcher County, Ky., Shane Lucas, who makes a steady income from selling broccoli, turnips and apples grown on his farm. “Fooling with this, I’m never broke,” Lucas said. “I’ve always got a dollar in my pocket.” It’s no where near the income he was making in the mines, but Lucas hopes he can make a go at being a farmer, just like his granddad. “Maybe we can make it, instead of having to move off,” he tells Moore.

We’ve been talking about “the moment” in the region for some time now, and about how this “moment of transition” is impacting all facets of life in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia. The thing is, it’s less like a moment now, and more like a movement of people not waiting around for someone to tell them what to do about the fall-out of the Central Appalachian coal industry, but rather, taking action to search out alternatives for themselves with the help of a few key organizations. Shane is one of those self-starters. And he’s just trying, like so many in the region right now, to make a way for himself that keeps him in the region, rather than forces him out.

As Moore puts it so well: “Shane is at a threshold, with one foot in an ailing traditional industry, and one in a new economy. Like many people in Appalachia, Shane is just trying to find his footing.”