Green Living or Black Lung? What Environmentalism Means in Appalachia

Green Living or Black Lung? What Environmentalism Means in Appalachia

For centuries, outsiders have come to the Appalachian Mountains in search of spiritual retreat. The isolation from the normal vestiges of human society, the lush green scenery, the image of being hemmed in by growing walls of stacked hills — these sights and the feelings they evoke seem special to the ancient mountains. The Appalachian Trail memoir is a veritable genre in and of itself. The stories follow a standard script: an aimless wanderer takes off on a great adventure, learning how to relax from some combination of folksy locals and mystical communion with nature. But these are the narratives of people from faraway regions. How do Appalachians themselves understand their environment? How do Appalachians interact with the extreme beauty, isolation, and wild of their home? 

Since 1890, Appalachia has experienced environmental degradation nearly unimaginable in the United States. Today, the mountain flora is still lush, the fauna still diverse, but these markers, highly visible to tourists, are terribly misleading. The coal and steel industry has wreaked havoc on the Appalachian environment and caused clear damage to the lives of residents. In many towns, including my home of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the tap water is so full of lead that it legally qualifies as toxic waste. The public health costs of pollution in the region exceed 75 billion dollars every year. Centralia, Pennsylvania has been on fire from a coal mining accident for over half a century. 

Appalachia is the only region of our country to experience the full effects of long-term extractive capitalism. As a result, Appalachians are uniquely aware of the risks that an unclean environment brings. Still, they are often, at least in the national imagination, opposed to environmental regulation efforts. This is especially evident when Appalachians express a desire to return to the destructive coal and steel economy, a sentiment oft-mocked by liberals and environmentalists. How can this paradox exist? How can a region so attuned to the consequences of environmental degradation also oppose environmental regulation? Appalachians’s desire for a return to coal and steel economies is not borne from an ignorance of the consequences of environmental degradation, but rather is reflective of their the need to stimulate local economies, which would help with both their preexisting environmental problems and regional poverty. 

To those of us on the Hill, it may seem ridiculous for Appalachians to actually want a coal or steel economy. These industries were brutal. Day-to-day life meant backbreaking work for shockingly low pay, constant exposure to harmful toxins, and extreme repression of labor rights. Steel and coal companies took advantage of the isolated nature of the Appalachian Mountains to construct small scale dictatorships where foremen acted as petty tyrants. Nearly everything about Appalachian life was controlled by “the company” up until the 1970s. Steel or coal companies in many towns owned all the homes, operated the only stores, paid the town’s preachers, constructed their schools, hired their own private police forces, and even issued their own currency. They also destroyed the Appalachian environment, elevated cancer rates, and poisoned the drinking water with lead. Appalachians are well aware of this horrible history. They are perfectly capable of criticising the social, personal, and environmental damage caused by the coal and steel industries. Still, having a terrible job is considered better than having no job at all. 

In my oral history research on the collapse of Appalachian steel, I always ask my interviewees what their vision of an ideal, prosperous Appalachia would look like. So far, no one has been able to answer. This is devastatingly sad for a number of reasons, but most interesting here because it reveals something very important about the relationship of Appalachians to industry. So far, no Appalachian has ever told me that a steel or coal economy is ideal for their community. One of the biggest misconceptions I encounter about Appalachia is the idea that locals consider the coal and steel industry to be the best possible construction of mountain life. In reality, a return to a coal or steel economy would be a compromise for most Appalachians. Steel and coal is simply the best they’ve ever known, not the best they can imagine. 

So why, an environmentalist might ask, don’t Appalachians look to bring in green industry? Historically, they have. Appalachians voted for Barack Obama in 2008, largely because of his tours of rural Appalachia and promises to return the region to a (green) energy economy. Green energy companies are markedly better for a region than coal and steel — they don’t destroy local environments, pay generally higher wages, are much safer to work for, and follow trendy good government models. Appalachians supported the introduction of a green economy because it was reasonable and exciting. Still, the green economy never materialised. Obama’s plans were blocked by a Republican Congress and green companies failed to grow at the rates expected. In the end, Appalachian unemployment and underemployment actually rose after 2008, even as the rest of the country began its slow recovery from the Recession. Today, the 39-page policy brief outlining the Green New Deal makes only one mention of coal towns. It reads: “Transition assistance for affected communities, including unemployment and healthcare.” Transition assistance is not defined. A proud community, composed of hardworking people, needs more than hospitals and unemployment checks. Appalachians are skeptical of green energy jobs because they have historically and presently been excluded from the market, even while being promised change. 

Hope for green energy employment has not proven realistic to Appalachians. But perhaps their most visible anti-environmental impulse is in policy, and especially in opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency and various Clean Water Acts. Often, people from steel or coal towns blame these regulations for industrial decline. This is not an accurate history. The EPA and Clean Water Acts lacked significant power during the long decline of Appalachian industry throughout the 1970s. When industrial production began to completely collapse in the early 1990s, the culprit was the introduction of cheap Chinese steel and increasingly high American labor costs, not environmental regulation. While the idea that the EPA caused the collapse of steel may be an inaccurate claim, Appalachians’ basic point, that the EPA is reflective of the federal government’s dangerous ignorance of Appalachian issues, is more reasonable. 

The EPA is an overwhelmingly forward-looking industry. It is far more focused on preventing further contamination than cleaning up existing problems. Since it was founded after Appalachian industry was already in decline, as a preventative organisation it does little to address posthumous industrial contamination. Additionally, the EPA focuses on wealthier areas and regions. Studies show that appeals for contamination cleanup are processed sooner and approved more often when they come from wealthier areas. The EPA protects those wealthy people who don’t want environmental degradation in their backyards, often outsourcing toxins to poor or minority neighbourhoods who lack the resources to devote to a bureaucratic, legalistic appeal process. Thus, the EPA is a form of federal government spending ill-equipped to help Appalachians with their specific and particularly severe problems. Suspicion of it is entirely warranted. 

Still, the only thing in Appalachia worse than liberal environmentalism are conservative appropriations of the green movement. What we at Holy Cross call “clean coal” is possibly the greatest threat ever faced by the Appalachian region. “Clean coal” is produced by “mountaintop coal removal.” In mountaintop coal removal, hills are literally inverted, made, through explosives, as deep a valley as they were once an elevation. Coal extracted by this method burns the hottest and produces the least pollution. In addition to destroying culturally important mountains and wilderness, people living in communities affected by mountaintop coal removal are 50% more likely to die of cancer and 42% more likely to be born with a birth defect. To add insult to injury, the sites are so “efficiently run” that they employ few, and in some cases zero, local community members. Mountaintop coal removal has faced overwhelming condemnation among Appalachians. Here, the mountaineers are staunch environmentalists, and have collaborated with many environmental organisations even as local communities struggle for national media attention. 

To some environmentalists, it may seem a great paradox that Appalachia could both oppose environmentalist efforts and suffer such severe consequences from environmental degradation. In reality, there is no contradiction here at all. Appalachians oppose environmentalist efforts precisely because Appalachia, as a poor and oppressed region, is so environmentally degraded. First, the logic is that if one must live in an environmentally degraded region, it is better to at least have steady work. This is eminently reasonable. Steady work can provide some cleanup resources and more bureaucratic protection, even if it risks more toxins. Although there are risks associated with a return to industry, recent studies have shown that the stress of extreme poverty can be just as carcinogenic as poisoned water or air pollution. Second, the Appalachian logic is that the environmental movement is not intended for people like the mountaineers. Environmentalism is perceived as a wealthy pursuit, and this is also not inaccurate. The EPA protects wealthier neighbourhoods at the expense of poor communities, and green energy jobs have historically gone to wealthier regions. Appalachia is anti-environmentalist because the environmentalist movement was not built for the very poor and extremely victimized. Appalachians do not necessarily reject environmentalism. They just understand that no one ever invited them in the first place. 

Moving forward, the environmentalist movement does have important areas where it can adapt to bring in Appalachian people, culture, and concerns. Environmentalists could find more common ground with Appalachians if they invested more in cleanup efforts focused especially on human health and restoration of drinking water. Additionally, supporting poor regions with legal aide and help navigating the federal bureaucracy would lessen the disparity of outcomes between poor and wealthy complaints to the EPA. Finally, making more genuine efforts to include Appalachia in the green energy economy would allow for clean, decent jobs in a region that very much needs them. To Appalachians, being a victim of green capitalism is not so different than being a victim of dirty capitalism. By keeping an eye to environmental justice, local needs, and economic reality, environmentalists do have an opportunity to make real headway into Appalachia.

(Overhead picture: Mountaintop removal in Virginia as seen from Black Mountain in Kentucky. Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times.)

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