I left my job as an underground coal miner at the beginning of August 2010, bringing to a close a family tradition that spanned five generations. The following spring, I moved my children away from the valley my family had lived in for 10 generations. Today, each time I return to my Appalachian home, I see more emptiness. I see once well-maintained yards overgrown in front of vacant houses falling into disrepair; “For Sale” signs speak to the air of desperation that grips the region. Many of my former co-workers have also left, each searching for better economic security for their families. Among those who remain in the region are the aging retirees from the glory days of coal, surviving on a fixed income provided by their pension and health care benefits. It is their basic want and hope to spend their final years in peace after decades of backbreaking, dangerous work supporting their families.
Coal miners worked for—and fought for—the promise of pension and health care benefits that would carry them and their spouses through to the end of their lives. But now, that promise is being broken. Tens of thousands of aging, disabled miners and widows will lose their income and their ability to go to the doctor if action isn’t taken.
These people aren’t simply numbers in a news article. They are people like my parents, my grandparents, and many of my friends and family members. They are people with faces, with stories, who laugh and smile with their children and grandchildren, and grimace when they feel pain.
In Appalachia, we know that the coal we mined, and the energy it produced, has been consumed unabated by hundreds of millions of people. We took pride in helping others live the American dream, even though we knew that energy was often wasted to heat and cool oversized homes, unnecessary business spaces, and to power lifestyles that continue to have less and less meaning. We know too, that the cheap steel produced by our coal made it possible for nearly every American household to own a car, and that it provided the strength for countless bridges and buildings. Some of that steel even produced the weapons used to defend our country.
Trillions of dollars of coal, mined with our labor, left our mountain home over the course of a century, and yet we remain some of the most impoverished communities in the nation. Every ton of coal that was extracted from Appalachia came as a detriment to our people; each ton came with externalized costs that were never paid for by a nation that continues to feel “entitled” to cheap energy.
The United States and its citizens have failed the Appalachian people. They have never come to our aid in countless battles to provide long-term health and retirement benefits for coal miners—battles that have been ongoing since 1946, including strikes, protests, watered-down acts of federal law, and appeals by coal corporations seeking to maximize their profits. Even as I write this, the Miner’s Protection Act has been shelved, caught in the bureaucracy of our government at the hands of politicians whose interests remain deeply vested in the coal industry.
The nation owes a great debt to the people of Appalachia. It is a price tag that includes the entirety of the industrial revolution and our present-day technological revolution. The least that can be done, as people who benefit from the sacrifices that have been made, is to educate ourselves and see to it that corporations, the wealthy individuals who run them, and the politicians who have built their careers assisting their affluent friends pay their fair shares and ease the suffering of those who have given so much.
Nick Mullins is a ninth-generation Appalachian and was the fifth generation of his family to work in the underground coal mines of Southwestern Virginia to support his family. He is featured in the upcoming documentary Blood on the Mountain, opening in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Dec. 16.