WELCH, W.Va. — The seams of coal in some of Eddie Asbury's mines in McDowell County are so thin workers can barely squeeze down them. They enter on carts nearly flat on their backs, the roof of the mine coursing by just a few inches in front of their faces. They don't stand up all day.
To keep his business operating with such a paltry amount of coal, Asbury has to do everything himself. He has no use for the shiny, multimillion-dollar mining machines on display this fall at the biannual coal show nearby. His equipment is secondhand stuff that he repairs and refurbishes. The coal he and his workers scrape out of the mountain is washed and prepared for sale in a plant Asbury and a colleague built themselves.
"It's how we survive," says Asbury, 66, a miner since 1971.
Even coal is barely surviving in coal country — and coal is about the only thing that Central Appalachia has.
West Virginia is the only state in the country where more than half of adults are not working, according to the Census Bureau. It is tied with Kentucky for the highest percentage of residents collecting disability payments from Social Security, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the death rate among working-age adults is highest in the nation, 55 percent higher than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And now the one main source for decent-paying work, the brutal life of coal, seems to be drying up for good. The thick, easy, cheap coal is gone, global competition is fierce, and clean air and water regulations are increasing costs and cutting into demand.
Central Appalachia's struggle is familiar to many rural regions across the United States, where middle-class jobs are disappearing or gone and young people have no other choice than to leave to find opportunity. But the problems are amplified in coal country, where these difficult economic and social conditions have gripped the region for decades and where there is hardly any flat land to build anything.
Every year since 1979, West Virginia has led the country in the percentage of people who are either not working or looking for work. But businesses are reluctant to come set up shop in Central Appalachia and take advantage of the available labor in part because education levels are so low. Forty-two percent of prime-age West Virginians have no more than a high-school degree, nearly double the national average.
"We have a mismatch between the job skills that employers want and the job skills West Virginians have," says John Deskins, director of the Bureau for Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. "It's a little bit grim. You can cut the data in multiple ways, and West Virginia still lags the nation."
But this crisis — and the realization that there won't be another coal boom in these parts — is leading to a growing understanding that new approaches are needed to help Central Appalachia emerge from decades of deep poverty, under-education and poor health.
Big federal and state programs and initiatives, some dating from the Lyndon Johnson administration, have failed to help the region diversify its economy much beyond digging or blasting coal out of mountains. If anything is going to help the people of Appalachia, poverty experts and residents of West Virginia now say, it's themselves: local entrepreneurs who know their communities and customers well, and are committed to them.
"We need to have some urgency and look at other possibilities because coal may not be here," says Dr. Donovan "Dino" Beckett, CEO of the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, who also is supporting a range of programs to help boost health and entrepreneurship. "But that's a controversial subject here because coal is a way of life."
Success, if it can come to coal country, will be the result of thousands of big risks taken by small-scale business people. It will be halting and arduous and it will come with failure. Many will have no choice but to leave, as tens of thousands already have in recent decades. And West Virginia may continue to lag the nation in social and economic demographics in the years to come.
Central Appalachia is not out of ideas, though, and it has not given up. Grassroots approaches like Dino Beckett's programs to improve health in Mingo County, an apprentice program in Wayne County designed to give high school kids a better chance at a good job, and even Eddie Asbury's small-but-determined coal operation in McDowell County show how Central Appalachia may slowly begin to remake itself.
Dark times for coal
For more than a century, the coal seams that run through Appalachia have made the steel used to build U.S. cities and the electric power to light them. As technology has improved, though, it has taken fewer and fewer workers to mine that coal.
Coal employment and population in Appalachia were at their highest in the middle of the last century. West Virginia coal employment peaked at 130,000 miners in 1940 and is now under 20,000.
The same trend played across the nation. There are fewer than 80,000 coal miners in the United States — less than half the number of new jobs the U.S. economy adds every month. That's one-tenth the number of coal workers in the 1920s, and those fewer workers now produce nearly twice as much coal.
Most of those job losses happened long before coal's latest downturn. Mechanization began slashing the number of workers needed to mine coal in the 1960s, and then a collapse in the U.S. steel industry in 1980s further decimated miners' ranks.
Now employment is falling further because the world is trying to turn away from coal in hopes of protecting the environment and human health. Coal is by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants among fuels used to make electricity.
Coal will not go completely away anytime soon — it's the cheapest way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people who lack access to it, and even developed nations will still need to burn it as they transition to cleaner fuels. The carbon in coal will still be needed to mix with iron to make steel. But there is so much more coal than the world needs that only the cheapest global producers will survive.
In the United States, where natural gas has become a cheaper alternative to coal to generate electricity, miners are facing an especially difficult market: Four major U.S. coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in the last 18 months.
Mining a thin seam of coal takes nearly as much labor, time and cost as mining a thick seam, but it yields a lot less coal. That makes the thin seams left in Central Appalachia too expensive to compete with cheaper coal being mined in places like Illinois, Wyoming, Australia and Indonesia. The industry will persist here, driven by small, determined operators like Asbury, but as a niche no longer able to support a region's economy.
"There's a reluctant realization that this is different," says Keith Burdette, West Virginia's commerce secretary and head of the state's economic development office, of the latest coal bust.
About the only flat land to build anything among the jumble of mountains in southern West Virginia is in the hollows traced by small rivers, and that land sits in dangerous flood plains.
This unavoidable geography has hampered efforts to diversify the economy, despite decades of effort. There's one stoplight in all of McDowell County, and there isn't a four-lane highway to be found.
John F. Kennedy stopped in Welch, McDowell's county seat, as a presidential candidate in May 1960 and railed against the "poverty and hunger, the destroyed health" of children there. The first food stamps were given out in McDowell County, and Congress launched the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965 to help increase job opportunities and make the region economically competitive.
Poverty experts say these efforts helped relieve the most acute conditions, but did little else. As coal employment declined, people fled because there was little else for them to do. McDowell County had a population of just under 100,000 in 1950. Since then, the county's population has fallen by four-fifths, to around 20,000.
"All we've got is coal," says Randy Campbell, one of Asbury's mine superintendents.
Trying anything to stay home
After years working as a contractor and temporary worker in the coal industry, Mark Muncy finally landed a permanent job, with benefits, working for a mine owned by Alpha Natural Resources in the fall of 2013 near his home in Welch.
A year later, Alpha closed the mine and Muncy was out of work. Alpha, one of the country's biggest coal companies, is now in bankruptcy.
Muncy didn't want to go back to working a long-haul truck driver, as he had done years before, because it kept him away from his family too much.
His daughter Ashleigh loved to bake so he raised some money from a local acquaintance, got a government-backed economic development loan and opened the Riverside Cafe and Bakery in June.
"I didn't know what else to do," he says.
The plan was to run it with just his wife and four children. But the only salad bar in town proved too popular, and customers fell in love with Ashleigh's pizza rolls. By customer request, Muncy agreed to extend the restaurant's hours and stay open until midnight on nights when there's a local football game with hungry fans.
The restaurant is bringing in three times what Muncy's loan officer predicted it would — and he's had to hire three people.
Ashleigh's original plan was to keep her job at the local supermarket and bake on the side, but her baking just got too popular. Some of Ashleigh's biggest fans: the region's remaining miners, like those who work for Asbury, who come early in the morning and ask her to wrap the pizza rolls individually so they can eat them for lunch down in the mine.
Asbury is negotiating a lease for a new mine even now, in the depths of a bust.
He also is trying to work with the state on a plan to build a surface mine that would flatten a stretch of mountains but also create enough space for a highway to connect McDowell County with the two interstates that meet in Beckley — and perhaps spur some economic development unrelated to coal, finally, in Central Appalachia.