Climate disaster hit hardest on the coasts this year, with flooding in the Southeast and raging infernos out west. But in Central Appalachia, the areas living through the decline of coal mining have been facing down a long-simmering crisis with the ruination of their landscapes and the sickening of their communities. But now these refugees of the fossil-fuel economy are leading their own green transition.
The Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, comprised of grassroots groups advocating for environmental and labor justice, are standing up against Trump’s push to “Make America Great Again” by resurrecting mines. While the administration buries the latest bad news on impending climate catastrophe, the coalition has mapped 20 potential alternatives to coal across Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia, collectively seeking regional revitalization through green technology, renewables, and sustainable industries. Altogether, the plan could breathe ecological inspiration into lands long ravaged by mining’s destruction and government disinvestment.
The Central Appalachia region, once the heart of a thriving economy of coalfields, is today pockmarked with abandoned mine sites. While these are a massive environmental blight, many could qualify for federal reclamation funds that have historically helped relieve poverty and joblessness (regional household incomes in the region are typically only about half the national average). But the coalition wants to leverage those resources for cleaning up the damage from coal’s legacy while building toward an ecologically conscious economy: seeding solar generation, expanding recycling and reuse-based enterprises, and transforming ruins of old mines into sites for community education, sustainable farming, and ecotourism. It’s a panoply of local visions for “Appalachia’s new New Deal,” echoing the rural revitalization agenda that uplifted an earlier generation of coal country. Since the plan stands in the wake of a bleak government-commissioned report outlining the devastation that climate change will bring (which Trump predictably ignored), the Coalition is positioned to turn the region’s landscape of crisis into an opportunity for renewal.
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With more 2 million people residing in designated “distressed” or “at risk,” areas in Appalachia, even small-scale green investments can go far in a long-impoverished region. For a roughly $2 million investment in Allais County, Kentucky, the Housing Development Alliance would redevelop a run-down strip-mall site into the Affordable Green Energy Subdivision. The project would build foundations for 15 homes for disadvantaged local families, designed around rooftop solar generation and constructed with a locally trained solar workforce. The project would generate about $4.4 million total economic activity, centered on housing for struggling families, many of whom would get new long-term jobs to boot.
Joey James, a project scientist with the environmental consultancy Downstream Strategies, says via e-mail that, while a homegrown community solar project may not have massive economic impact on its own, the long-term goal of these ventures is “demonstrating the value of a growing field—something that has to be done before any sizable solar development happens in central Appalachia. If we can successfully demonstrate these benefits, our hope is that central Appalachia will stand a chance at attracting new jobs up and down the value-chain,” with possible opportunities to become a wholesale generator for the whole region. In contrast to the ever-declining cost of solar power, the local price of coal power has also spiked.
In Wise County in southwestern Virginia, a plan to reclaim abandoned mine sites would transform them into fields of high-value crops, from CBD hemp to elderberries. By fostering local independent farming, the agricultural venture would produce only about 14 jobs on-site. But the coalition estimates that the initial investment would generate dozens more farming jobs “through outreach, education, and training,” with a bridge to the University of Virginia’s agricultural extension program.
To cultivate a future workforce through the region’s school systems, a project in Letcher County, Kentucky, would install a solar array directly onto an elementary-school campus, so the school that borders an abandoned mine site can use homegrown solar to power both its classrooms and a parallel program to teach students about sustainable energy to help build homegrown long-term careers. As an effort to help promote growth in an otherwise depopulating region, James says, “these opportunities provide young folks the opportunity to stay and live and work in their community.” The schools of coal country, too, are ripe for renewal; reflecting the devastation wrought by an unsustainable fossil-fuel economy, Letcher schools were among those that were shut down amid the statewide wave of teacher strikes last spring.
Historically, “redevelopment” in Appalachia has often been tied to industries that cause environmental or social damage. According to Eric Dixon, coordinator of Policy and Community Engagement with Appalachian Citizens Law Center, shifting toward a greener economy, even with just one solar panel at a time, helps close the ethical loop between jobs and the environment:
As a region we have an opportunity to invest in projects that could actually create jobs and build local wealth here for working class people…. there are innovative alternatives to the old forms of development we’ve pursued historically but have never paid off for folks here in the mountains.
In addition to pilot funding from the Obama-era Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization program, the coalition can draw on the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program, for which Congress allocated $105 million in 2017 and $115 million in 2018. Activists are also pushing lawmakers to pass the pending RECLAIM Act, which would fast-track about $1 billion in future project financing from an industry-sponsored fund.
With a divided Congress, there’s only faint hope in Washington for a bold new climate-change plan, especially under an administration that is reflexively hostile to regulation. But after the midterm shake-up, grassroots initiatives like Reclaim Appalachia’s campaign could stir an emerging green agenda on the Hill.
Today, Central Appalachia’s budding green shoots admittedly remain tiny. But against the backdrop of Trump’s boosterism for a moribund industry, local progressives are digging into the untapped potential of a generation just taking root.