A parade for coal

MADISON, W.Va. - Elsewhere it's being vilified, regulated and undercut by competition.

Here, coal gets a parade.

A hilly West Virginia county that prides itself as the cradle of American coal concluded five days of festivities last week with a sirens-wailing, lights-blazing demonstration of love for an embattled industry.

As it does every year, the event had festival princesses waving as they rolled past spectators. But at this year's West Virginia Coal Festival, some storm clouds hovered ominously over those tiaras.

The source of concern was stamped across the front page of the local paper — it's called the Coal Valley News, and it warned of an 8.3 per cent year-over-year decline in employment in the industry.

In Boone County, where coal was first discovered in 1742, it's more than just a combustible, carbon-belching combination of compounds that powered global industrialization. Here, it's personal.

Delores Cook is a coal miner's daughter — one of thousands in this part of Appalachia. She's also a coal miner's sister. And, since 2012, she's been a coal miner's widow. She's among the volunteers at the Coal Heritage Foundation Museum.

Her late husband's presence lingers here, his old hard-hat and gloves now being worn by a mannequin in miners' gear.

The museum carries other, darker memories of the industry's past. There's a memorial wall to those killed on the job, including 29 who died nearby in a single disaster in 2010. There's the old, illegal currency miners were paid with — good for use only at the local company store. And then there are the rusty old guns and bullets from the bloody clashes when workers unionized.

Area miners face new challenges now: a double-whammy, from federal climate-change regulations and the growing competition from cheap, abundant natural gas.

Cook said the economic concern was felt at this year's festival. Visitors to the town, she said, held on to their wallets a little tighter at the fairground, spending less at the food stalls and open-air market.

"They don't know if their mines will shut down," Cook said.

"They may need that money for bread and milk."

The overall picture for coal isn't actually that dire. U.S. production is currently projected to dip only slightly, bolstered by increased demand from abroad. But this ancestral industry hub is taking a disproportionate hit.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts production will have declined nearly 50 per cent from 2011 to 2021.



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