By Matt Combs
March 4, 2018 - In Southern West Virginia last week, local and regional leaders came to the Resort at Glade Springs in Daniels (Raleigh County) to learn how to maybe get their hands on a piece of the proposed $20 million in Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) POWER Initiative grant funds, but they were also educated on some cold, hard facts about the regional economy.
Along with presentations on the various aspects of the initiative, ARC’s Director of Planning and Research Kostas Skordas was on hand to share the findings of a recently published five-part study that the ARC commissioned on the downturn of the coal industry and the impact that the downturn has had and will continue to have.
Compiled by experts from West Virginia University and the University of Tennessee and titled “An Economic Analysis of the Appalachian Coal Industry Ecosystem,” the study outlines the root causes of the decline and how it has impacted the entire region.
While dealing with hard numbers, Skordas reminded the audience that there were individual people greatly impacted by those numbers.
“As the director of Research and Planning, I see a lot of numbers and a lot of statistics,” Skordas told the audience. “Sometimes I think it helps to step back and talk about what these represent and who these represent.”
The greatest personal impact of the statistics Skordas discussed was the loss of jobs across Appalachia and the nation as a whole.
“What we know from data is about half of the coal mine workers and production in Appalachia has been lost in a very short period of time,” Skordas said.
While highlighting that the coal industry has been in an ebb and flow over many decades, Skordas said that the last six years saw an accelerated loss, particularly in Appalachia.
Speaking on an economic forecast included in the study, Skordas told the audience that experts believe that the losses have begun to level out, but that even the most recent losses will not be regained.
Skordas said that numbers that came in at the end of 2017 did show a rebound, especially in West Virginia.
“Of the 30,000 jobs lost in the past six years, the region gained back about 2,000 of those just in the past year alone,” Skordas said. “About 1,400 have been here in West Virginia as well.
“We later questioned about whether those jobs were in the thermal or metallurgical coal mines,” Skordas said. For the most part gains were due to increased foreign demand for high-quality metallurgical coal.
While highlighting that to understand the real story, you must look at detailed county-by-county statistics, he said the net effect of the downturn has been job loss.
According to Skordas, one of the most important pieces of information gained from the study is that the downturn has not only hurt communities that have direct mining operations, but the entire region as a whole.
“What we have learned is that there are many counties that have been impacted that have no coal mines,” Skordas said. “In fact, up to 80 percent of the Appalachia’s 420 counties see some impacts along the supply chain.”
Many of those losses have been in the rail and power generating industries.
As the nation and the world have shifted away from coal as a power generation source in favor of natural gas and renewables, not only have mines closed and their miners been displaced, so have power plant and rail workers.
“The ripple effects are both deep and wide,” Skordas said.
While Skordas believes many of the jobs are lost forever, he said that he believes that the workers in those industries have shown evidence of being able to diversify their skill in how many qualifications they have gained as miners and other types of workers.
“These are workers that are willing to invest in themselves,” Skordas said.
While hopeful for the future, Skordas also shared how surprised he was to see how much the downturn of the coal industry impacted communities in ways that aren’t obvious on the surface.
“When I read this report a couple of months ago, there was a section on K through 12 funding,” Skordas said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if this really has any relevance.’ I really wasn’t quite sure how this fit.”
To the laughs of the audience, Skordas acknowledged the events of the past week and held up a copy of Wednesday’s Register-Herald.
“Remember I said ripple effects,” Skordas said. “These are some really difficult conversations that are happening around K through 12 education, school teachers and pay.”
Skordas shared that the report found school funding has been in decline in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.
“The downturn in the coal industry has had an ongoing, in some ways slow motion, ripple effect across communities,” Skordas said. “Whether that county has a coal mine or not.”
The research director urged those in attendance to use the report in their grant applications, and for communities that do not have mines but have been impacted by the downturn to apply.
In those applications, Skordas urged the applicants to tell their community’s story on a personal level.
“Again, I would like to maybe step back a little bit,” Skordas said. “You can throw out all sorts of numbers out there and statistics, but at the end of the day it’s the stories and the real people and families that have been impacted by these changes that matter.”
“An Economic Analysis of the Appalachian Coal Industry Ecosystem” is available on the ARC website under the research tab.
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