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Are You Ready for a Coal Town Turnaround?
Even in a community whose most famous building is literally made out of coal, leaders are seeking a new way forward.

In West Virginia’s largest newspaper this week, journalist Ken Ward Jr., a veteran chronicler of the coalfields, spotlights poll numbers that might surprise the politicians in his state—most of whom are already bemoaning President Obama’s new carbon pollution standards as a “war on coal.”

“Americans living in coal-heavy states are supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions,” Ward quotes from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, pointing out that previous surveys have found similar results. “Among those in states where a majority of electricity is produced by burning coal, 69 percent say the government should place limits on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Ward uses those results to pound West Virginia pols for being out of step with their constituents when they try to derail efforts—like the one announced by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this week—to clean up coal-fired power plants and transition to a clean energy economy.

“More importantly,” he asks, “what about the future of a state where a huge chunk of the coal industry is already expected to go away—regardless of what EPA does?”

This isn’t an idle question in towns that are already suffering from double-digit unemployment as coal mining gets replaced by natural gas and cleaner forms of power—and where the local populace is dealing with a rash of coal-related health problems on top of the economic downturn.

One of those towns is Williamson, West Virginia (population: 3,100), a place billed as “the heart of the billion-dollar coalfields,” where the local chamber of commerce headquarters is literally made out of coal—65 tons of it, to be exact. It’s a place where some of the residents still trace their roots to the fabled Hatfield and McCoy clans, and where local tourism is based around exploring that famous family feud. It’s a place where heritage runs deep.

And yet Williamson is also a place primed and ready to move past its coal-mining roots, if given the chance. As Ward’s paper explained recently, many of Williamson’s community leaders—the former mayor, a town doctor, educators, businessmen, and others—got together five years ago in an effort to revitalize the community under the banner Sustainable Williamson.

The initiative started small, mostly focused on improving health (Mingo County, where Williamson is located, tops the state in residents with physical and mental health problems—many of them coal-related). But the group’s efforts have since extended to replacing some coal-generated electricity with solar panels and making town buildings more energy efficient.

What makes Sustainable Williamson potentially groundbreaking is that it involves allies who bring very different interests and occupations to the table. Veterans of the coal and gas industry sit down with young clean energy activists in the local coffeehouse to talk strategy alongside city officials and the school superintendent. All are coming together with a common goal: improving the health and job prospects for a town long down on its luck.

Now, thanks to the common ground they’ve laid, there’s a growing sense that things can be different. “It’s a holistic approach,” Dr. Dino Beckett, who was born in raised in Williamson and treats patients at the new health center (built in part with federal grants that incorporate solar and energy efficiency measures), told me.

“We will never abandon our coal heritage,” Beckett says. “But we need to be more forward thinking and diversity our economy.”

I’ve never been to Williamson, but I’ve visited many similar communities all over the country, in places like Louisiana and Iowa, where fishermen and farmers and the people who work in fossil fuels understand that change is coming—whether they accept the concept of “climate change” or not. They value their heritage and old way of life, and some are determined to cling to it. But many—if not most—seek a path toward a new way of supporting their families.

That’s what motivates the leaders in Williamson. And it’s what Ward argues that their state and federal representatives should be doing, too: embracing change, not fighting it.

“Before, people here just knew coal,” says Charlie McCoy, president of the local chamber of commerce—the one housed in that building actually made out of the black rock. Changing things, he says, “will take an entrepreneurial spirit.” And it means looking forward, not back—no matter what the politicians say.

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Rocky Kistner has been a reporter and video producer for more than 20 years, working for news organizations including ABC News, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media, and PBS Frontline. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (7)
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You clearly have not been to Williamson. Like many communities in West Virginia, the moneyed and educated populace has shifted to exurbs, leaving the town core to wither and die in the grasp of poverty. While the "leaders" (who have managed to stay out of jail in the midst of a huge political scandal) and environmental activist Ken Ward (journalist is a bit of a stretch) may sing this song, the locals are largely not supportive. All the solar panels in the world cannot make up for the loss of wealth in this remote, forgotten town that no longer has a base industry of any sort.
The commenter above is exactly right. While I wish that the rosy picture that this story paints is true, the reality is far from it. Nothing is really changing for the better. Locals largely aren't thinking post-coal. The only point of contention I would take is that Ken Ward is certainly a journalist, and a good one. He clearly has his opinions and I wouldn't even disagree with calling him an activist but he's knows his material and writes some excellent pieces. Just because someone has an opinion doesn't mean they aren't a journalist. Actually, I'd rather know where a journalist stands while reading their work rather than for them to pretend that they don't have opinions when they really do.
It's a start, and this is all that needs to happen. A start, with some support, attention brought to this issue and start the conversation. People will see, in time, solar and wind provide betters jobs, more secure futures, and the health impacts are none to none.. This is the beginning of transition in WV and I am proud of Ken Ward and the word he is doing and proud of the citizens of WV for fighting against these coal companies. The EGREGIOUS disregard of the cesspool of politicians who tout coal can't quite get away any longer with lying, selling out the rights of civilians, their families and these communities to line their pockets with money, and line your pockets with lies, heartache and heartbreak. The time is now for a clean energy state and this is a beginning. It's not perfect and it won't be perfect, but no industry and no politician should be allowed to control a society like they have with coal, sell jobs on dirty pollution and repress these people and suppress them. To live in a society under threat and intimidation for so many years as what the coal industry has been allowed to get away with is abhorrent. The 'leaders' of West Virginia who make these decisions that cost so many their lives, should all resign. Joe Manchin, Tomblin, Rahall, Capito have sold the people of West Virginia out for years at the expense of citizens lives, their health, their futures. The world supports the People of West Virgina and we look forward to a new year for these people who have been so horrifically wronged. Onward Ken Ward and thank you for your work. I look forward to better news, better lives, the truth, and a new West Virginia in the years to come.
you wrote an excellent reply! We have solar power where we live and would sure like to afford getting fitted out with solar power. Thanks for your comment!
The top image is technically of South Williamson, KY. The Williamson WV part is that small road on the right.
Waste of tax dollars, if you really want to help WV fight for coal there is plenty to mine. If we dont't mine it China will and they don't care about emissions. It is safer for the eart for good ol' a WV miners to mine that black gold. You tell me how all the guys are goung to make what they make now with solar panels. These politicians need to unite and fight DC for miners.
Things are changing for the better... this is the reality!