For Sunday reading, the WaPo mag’s coal story, “Into the Darkness,” packed a good punch. There was drama, death, and lots of good storytelling moving it all along. Joby Warrick’s 7,000-plus words felt like a lean 3,000.
The writing was so tight that I’m tempted to forgive the Post for the flimsy premise that underlies the piece. And that is this: West Virginia miners brave the proven hazards of their industry because mining is in their veins. To deliver this point, the story relies on the following money quote, from a mine manager: “These are proud people, and they take pride in what they do. There are other opportunities out there if they want them. But there’s something about living here and getting a little coal dust in the blood that brings them back.” (Emphasis City Desk’s.)
Those opportunities consist mainly of moving somewhere else. The coal-mining country of southern West Virginia has been in decline for years. Sure, coal miners develop strong bonds underground, and their passion for this dirty and dangerous work gets passed from one generation to the next. But please, let’s not allow a statement about the region’s “opportunities” to go unchallenged.
Just how much opportunity is there in those hills? Well, let’s just take McDowell County as an example. Situated in the far souther reaches of the state, this is big-time coal country—and a recipient of some serious federal aid. Here’s some data that the Environmental Protection Agency used to justify a federal grant program:
The target community of McDowell County (population 27,329), a federally designated rural Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community, is located in what was once a prosperous coal mining region of West Virginia. The decline in coal mining and other related industries has led to a severe economic downturn in the region. Flooding and other natural disasters have compounded the economic devastation. The population of the county is less than 28 percent of what it was 50 years ago. The poverty rate is almost 38 percent, and the average income is 57 percent of that of the state. The lack of employment opportunities has resulted in a large drop in the number of county residents under the age of 45.