Like colorful reminders of better times, toys sit strewn among the weeds of an abandoned coal camp house in southwestern Boone County, West Virginia.
Not too long ago, this house was a home. Now no one wants it, nor others in the neighborhood, and it sits empty.
The family who left it behind got lucky; they left quickly for another mining job in north central West Virginia. Others aren’t as fortunate.
Like refuges from a third-world country, more and more people are fleeing Boone County.
With no jobs, no money and no way to stay, unemployed miners struggle here until they have no choice but to uproot their families, walking away from mortgages and abandoning houses to find a new life somewhere else.
Until recently, four of the county’s top five employers—all coal companies—employed nearly 3,500 while the mines were working, according to the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation.
Coal mining employment was stable and entire families depended upon it.
“There was a time when typically a young man would walk out of high school with a piece of paper, and walk directly into a mining job—when they were plentiful—and begin by making $40,000. And in five or six years he would be making $60,000 to $80,000,” said the economic development corporation’s Executive Director Kristin Mitchell.
But in the last three to four years, an estimated 5,000 mining jobs have been lost in a county of just 25,000 people.
Market changes and more stringent environmental regulations have dealt nearly a death blow to that way of life.
Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal have filed for bankruptcy, while Hobet Mining’s operation has dwindled to almost nothing. Coal River Energy representatives have recently been speaking with county officials about their mine operations.
And that has sent a ripple through all aspects of dwindling community that once flourished in southern West Virginia.
Less coal = less taxes = financial crisis
Boone Couny has usually ranked first or near the top among the state’s 29 coal-producing counties. Just five years ago, the West Virginia Coal Association cited it for having the state’s highest coal reserves, producing the most annual total tonnage and having the highest coal mining employment.
But the stunning decline of coal has one very clear ripple effect on this community: a loss of tax revenue in Boone County.
“Coal collections are down, companies are going bankrupt and our county collections are also way down since people aren’t paying their property taxes. We now have people who are fighting just to save their homes, but others who just leave because they can’t afford a house without an income,” County Commissioner Mickey Brown told us.
Gone are the days when commissioners spent money to provide summer internships for college students, or even operate solid waste transfer stations so that garbage disposal was free to county residents.
“It seems like just out of the blue we went from rags to riches to rags again fast.”
At its peak in 2009, the county received $5.6 million in state coal severance taxes. That dropped to $3 million in 2013. And like the state government, the county was forced to dip into its own rainy day fund—to the tune of $900,000—to balance next year’s budget. That’s half the county’s rainy day fund.
Boone County can’t even pay its teachers.
Boone County Schools are no better off financially. They’re currently struggling to pay employees on June 25, said Superintendent John Hudson.
Though the county asked for help, legislators in Charleston failed to provide the county with any supplemental funding during the recent special session devoted to passing a state budget. Hudson, however, remains hopeful they will take action upon returning to Charleston on June 12.
Hudson, a local native who attended local schools and worked his way up the district ladder, takes the situation personally because he sees how many lives will never be the same.
“I’ve lived here my entire life, been in administration and served as superintendent for seven years. In fact, my wife is a teacher here. So to tell people that I know, care about and respect what this means is hard beyond words, especially since it is occurring in such a drastic fashion that it is unprecedented in West Virginia,” he said.
Board members anticipated the economic tsunami, and took action, but the worst was yet to come. Thirty seven positions were cut to help with the current year’s budget.
Approximately 80 employees (including about 60 teachers) have been laid off for next year and three schools closed. But declining enrollment means less state funding in the future.
Ailing school district finances aren’t getting better since there is now a $9.3 million shortfall – money troubles worsened by Alpha Natural Resources’ bankruptcy filing. The downward spiral continues despite board members having made $2.6 million in cuts last year.
Human costs are harder to calculate.
“I sent a letter out to each employee basically asking them to let me do the worrying, because I know how very concerned they are about the financial situation. I want them to know we are continuing to diligently do the work that has to be done, and my goal is that we will meet payroll. I’m going to do everything in my power that I can possibly do, so I wanted to assure them of that,” he said.
But its not just jobs that are lost. It’s a culture that’s dying.
Bob White resident Maria Gunnoe, a well-known volunteer community organizer who has fought mountaintop coal mining, worries that a whole population of “hollow boys and girls” and their way of life is at stake.
“Boone County residents deserve more than they are getting from coal companies after decades of having given their health and lives to them,” she said.
“The way things are going this could be the last generation of a very unique culture of people. And we are unique, because the coal industry has definitely created a culture of people who are able to sustain ourselves on the mountains around us. But it’s also very ironic because that same industry is also to blame for what’s happening now,” she said.
Gunnoe, who has also spent time in McDowell County, fears that its joblessness rates and poverty levels will soon be matched locally because “they are both mined out in a big way,” she said.
“There are so many depopulated communities that are now basically unsupported, and suffering from so much pollution. People do the best they can to survive, but it is hard to call it living when even the windows are on you house are boarded up and you don’t even have good drinking water. The worst of what I’ve seen is families living in boarded-up buildings because they are so poor,” she said.
“I work with a lot of impoverished communities, and what I have seen in McDowell County is very sad. There are cases of extreme poverty, where the people who are left are the ones who don’t have a choice. They can’t pick up and leave, so it becomes a case of out of sight, out of mind. I mean how often do politicians even talk about what they are going to do for McDowell County, much less really do anything,” she said.
Waiting on coal to come back isn’t the answer, she said, adding, “I see some of the most impoverished people in the country still supporting coal, because they don’t realize their demise was part of the coal industry.”
Madison attorney Harry Hatfield has similar concerns.
“Our economy is already ravaged, and people are voting with their feet by leaving,” he said. “In my mind, the people who want to work are getting out or have left. The people who don’t want to work or have no marketable skills, or too old or too sick, they stay so it becomes an increasingly depressed economy – an increasingly depressed socioeconomic environment. I think our proximity to Charleston may save us from ending up like McDowell County,” he said.
“We are maintaining hope”
Boone County may be down, but it’s not out. “It has been a struggle, but we are maintaining hope because there are a lot of good people here who don’t want to leave. The people here are resilent. They come from strong families, and that heritage provides them with a strength of the heart and mind,” said Mitchell.
“It’s difficult to explain the pull of this area to someone who’s never experienced it, but you know it when you feel it,” she said.