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OPINION: Appalachia must say goodbye to coal mining

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While it’s part of Appalachia’s history, opinion writer Spencer Costello argues that communities in the region must find a way to replace the value of coal mining to avoid economic decline.

Coal powers nearly 30 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. It was the economic backbone of many blue-collar towns all across the country. This is especially true of small towns in Appalachia, including Athens.

The mining industry gave life to towns and homes across the Midwest but has also left a haunting footprint across some of the most beautiful and natural landscapes of our country, all while paving a horrible trail of poverty and destruction in its path. This leaves a desperate situation for communities who struggle to recover economically and environmentally in the wake of the coal industry collapse.

The process of mining coal can be quite detrimental to the environment. After being extracted, the coal is sent to be treated at a coal preparation plant. A variety of chemicals are used to treat the coal and make it suitable for transportation and industrial consumption. The chemical runoff is directed into large pools outside the plant called “slurry ponds.” These toxic tubs are filled with poisonous chemicals and are extremely dangerous.

When disaster strikes, it devastates surrounding communities. Slurry ponds can leak, destroying everything in their path or contaminating the area’s water supply. But the destruction does not stop here. On top of looming dangers, the pollution caused by the trucks and plants themselves are the number one source of air pollution in the U.S.

Besides the horrific environmental dangers, why should we, as part-time residents of an Appalachian college town, care about the negative economic effects of coal mining?

In the ‘50s, Athens brickmaking and coal mining was the city’s major source of income. By the ‘60s the short-lived boom in brickmaking had begun to decline. Major coal companies then left southeast Ohio after sucking it dry to move onto the next innocent city. Athens County only has one coal mine left, Buckingham Coal. As a result of the county’s economic backbone leaving, it has been declared a “food desert” and is the poorest county in the state as of 2015.

In contrast, Monongalia County, West Virginia, another historic mining hotbed, has more than 30 coal companies still in business and houses about 40,000 more citizens. The average family income in Monongalia is almost $10,000 more than that of Athens. It is true that coal mines in Monongalia County provide economic stimulus, but is it really worth the fatal footprint that they will eventually leave?

For the economic well-being of coal mining towns to be saved, they should diversify their economy to compensate for when the coal mines inevitably leave.

Places like Monongalia County could easily grab the attention of businesses to surround major college campuses. We see this happening here in Athens. For example, the RQX Pharmacy, a pharmaceutical compounding site, is in the process of being constructed. Though it may not be the most groundbreaking addition to the area, it’s a prime example of how to diversify the economic environment while also appealing to its citizens.

Businesses that appeal to young people could help create an exciting and charismatic alternative to the predicament our Appalachian neighbors face. But this does not solve the environmental issue of what coal mines leave behind.

When coal industries leave, the mines are left to rot while debris litters the area with pollution and unhealthy conditions. If these areas are closed down and repurposed the correct way, the land can be saved for development.

If coal mines are shut down properly, more valuable land will become available. Business and residential real estate companies will then flock to the valuable land. In turn, business create jobs, thus attracting more residents to the area.

If cities cannot find a way to replace the value of coal mining in their area, economic decline is imminent. This story seems all too familiar to some of the bricks that are tucked beneath the soil of our beloved little town of Athens. If history truly does repeat itself, we will see other counties slowly follow suit of what happened in Athens County.

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