C.W. Gusewelle

Attack on the coal industry has human fallout

Coal comes off a conveyor belt as mine owner C.V. Bennett III drives by at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Ky.
Coal comes off a conveyor belt as mine owner C.V. Bennett III drives by at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Ky. The Associated Press

Driving westward one recent day, back toward the city on a road paralleling the Missouri River, my attention was drawn to a gigantic plume of smoke rising what appeared to be a couple of hundred feet or more into the morning sky.

Its source, a considerable distance to the north, could not be seen.

But I assumed it was the Kansas City Power & Light’s coal-fired Hawthorn generating plant, which provides electrical service to some 800,000 customers in western Missouri.

If so, that towering emission was visual evidence of global warming in action — a process that had not yet even found a place in the public or political vocabulary when construction of the Hawthorn facility began in 1948.

Today, coal-fired power generation is considered by scientists to be the greatest single contribution to environmental degradation.

Stop the burning of coal and save the planet! is the popular demand. But while coal certainly is a culprit, it is only one piece of the problem.

End the manufacture and use of automobiles is a suggestion less often heard.

Plainly, whatever the sense of those remedies, the immediate economic and social consequences would be profound.

Some 40 years ago I accepted the commission from a national magazine to research and report on conditions of life in the increasingly moribund coal mining regions of Appalachia.

Challenged by the project, I took leave from the newspaper and traveled to eastern Kentucky. There, in a hamlet named Lookout, in the steep little valley of a creek called the Marrowbone, I arranged for a month’s lodging with a disabled miner, Kermit Ratliff, and his wife, Vadney, in one of the small cottages formerly owned by the Henry Clay mine, which employed Kermit before his health failed.

As recently as the 1930s, more than a thousand men a day went under the mountain there. Twenty years later the number was less than 500. And on a morning in 1952, at the window where men got their pay and drew their headlamps before going underground, there was a notice posted.

After Friday, it said, there’ll be no more work here. And just eight years later, a similar notice went up at the Blue Diamond mine in Allegheny, three miles up the creek from Lookout.

So the coal mining industry was winding down. Most of the older miners, like Kermit, were retired or disabled. With few other prospects for employment, now it was young men laboring in the pits.

The economy of the entire region was in precipitous decline.

The effects were visible in living conditions best describable as threadbare.

And that was the situation even before coal mining became the main target of the nation’s well-intentioned Save the Planet crusade.

I’m as aware as anyone of the threat posed by atmospheric carbon pollution. I share fully the dread of seeing our coastal cities drowned, our forests withered and our croplands turned to deserts.

A better outcome must be sought, but fragile populations like the people of Appalachia cannot be asked to bear the cost of salvation alone.

Assuming that the coal industry has to go, some sensible economic and social alternatives must replace it. And the benefits, no less than the cost, will have to be broadly shared.

For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.