The Vanishing Appalachians
My only beef with Kevin Williamson’s moving Appalachian elegy (“Left Behind,” December 16) is the treatment of the coal industry, which he just briefly describes as a “bulwark against utter economic ruin.” Williamson suggests that one reason for the impoverishment of Owsley County, Ky., the poorest county in America, is the drift of workers closer to coal operations. This would suggest that mining towns are little islands of relative prosperity and happiness, but, in reality, some of the starkest poverty in Appalachia and a disproportionate level of negative health effects are closely associated with areas where mountaintop-removal mining is taking place. Some studies suggest that coal production is actually a net economic burden rather than a boon for Appalachia, and communities near mining sites report some of the lowest scores in the multi-factor Gallup/Healthways Well-Being Index.
It is a conservative temptation to merely blame government mining regulations — the “war on coal” derided on many a West Virginia billboard — for economic hardship, but as the piece pointed out, the region often confounds the simple bumper-sticker slogans mouthed across the political spectrum. War may be an apt analogy, though. There are now 500 fewer mountains in the ancient Appalachians than there were a century ago, and a greatly reduced mining work force uses millions of pounds of explosives a day to obliterate what remains.