The effects of coal

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 31, 2014

This week I took an unplanned trip to see my parents. My mom was in the hospital and I booked a flight to one of the poorest regions of the nation.

The Appalachia region of Tennessee and Virginia was once an area that was home to a thriving coal industry that fired the engine of our nation’s economic development. The black rock was extracted from deep underground mines and then shipped all over the country and throughout the world. Big mining companies grew rich off the hard work of the people living in the area. Coal companies established a system similar to sharecropping where miners lived in company housing and shopped at the company commissary, all in an effort to keep the workers indebted to the company.

Life improved for coal miners when they formed unions and fought for greater safety and better pay. Working conditions improved but the region remained mired in poverty. Big coal companies continued to thrive and deep mining shifted to strip mining, a process that strips the vegetation off the mountain and removes tons of topsoil and rock layers to get to the coal. The once pristine mountainsides and deep hollows are clogged with debris and what’s left is a steep hillside stepped back and shaved flat on the top.

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Crumbling infrastructure, an aging population and flight of the younger generation out of the region for better jobs and a higher quality of life are signs that the area is stagnating. What could be the final blow is the Obama administration’s push for cleaner energy. Coal is being replaced by clean burning natural gas in our nation’s power plants and what was once the lifeblood of the Appalachia Mountains is drying up.

Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis is another effect of the coal industry and can be seen in many hospitals throughout the region. Black Lung Disease is caused by long exposure to coal dust. It is a common affliction of coal miners and others who work with coal and to the long-term effects of tobacco smoking. Unlike other parts of the nation where smoking is on the decline, tobacco is still king. Many smokers start before they can even drive, a rite of passage passed down from generation to generation. Pulmonologists are in short supply and carry name recognition similar to a rock star.

The town my parents live in closed the high school a few years ago and several buildings have recently collapsed from lack of maintenance. Signs of urban decay are everywhere in that tiny rural town. Sometimes it takes seeing what other places have to offer to fully appreciate your community. We have a thriving community with a bright future and I can’t wait to get home.

Paul Barry is the managing editor and can be reached by email at or by phone at 601-636-4545 ext. 123.