West Virginia is among the poorest if not the poorest state in the union as well as one of the most uneducated and least economically developed. It wasn’t always this way. The reasons for this almost have to do entirely with coal.
In the 1950s more than a fifth of the working population worked in the coal industry. Life in West Virginia was based around coal. Much of the population lived in towns that were created by companies called “coal towns”. Places like Enterprise, West Virginia or Gordon, WV . These towns were built and administered by mining companies for the purpose of bringing miners and their families next door to work.
Since most mines were pretty backwoods areas that would require a lot of time and effort for miners to get out there, do their job, transport their product, and then leave, it made more sense for mining operators to just set up coal camps which eventually turned into coal towns. It’s why there are so many tiny towns and villages just seemingly in the middle of the brush in West Virginia along with a lot of winding mountain roads connecting them all.
These towns were almost all governed by the mining companies themselves as well, some even had their own form of credit which could only be used at company stores. So not only was housing in coal towns propped up by the coal companies, so were the businesses within the town as well.
So what happens when a cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient competitor to coal comes out? In this case natural gas. People stop buying coal. When people stop buying coal, many of these mining operations simply dry up and so do the towns. The young people can’t just go into the mines after school for steady employment, so they leave. Business, propped up by coal miner wages and credit, leaves as well. These coal towns, which number in the hundreds across West Virginia start hurting badly and experience economic contraction like never before. But it’s not simply that coal companies are moving out because they’re being replaced. Coal is also running out.
There is only so much in the West Virginia mountains and it’s been mined heavily and almost nonstop since the mid-1700s. Many of these coal mines have just stopped bearing coal. Also in terms of coal sales, Wyoming has been giving West Virginia a run for its money lately.
Another factor in the unemployment situation in West Virginia is automation. It isn’t a new thing either, when the conveyor belt came out a bunch of coal miners lost their jobs. And then longwall mining came out in force and instead of having miners hacking at the mine you could simply shear off an thousand foot long ‘wall’ in the mine and having it packed and ready for transport instantly significantly reducing the number of people needed in the mines.
After longwall mining came mountaintop removal mining. This is where you simply cut down the forest on a piece of mountain where you want to mine, and then literally blow up the top of the mountain to get down to the precious coal reserves beneath the soil. It’s a lot safer than traditional mining because it negates the need to go underground but at the same time it’s not really environmentally conscious.
If you want an idea of how widespread mountaintop removal mining is just pull up a satellite photo of West Virginia on Google Maps and look at all of the patches of scalped off land dotting the state.
West Virginia is a pretty homely state as well, much of the coal mining that is or was done is a family affair, a grandfather worked in the coal mines and then when he retired his son took his place, and then when he retired his son took his place and son on. October Sky gives you a pretty good idea. A lot of people just don’t leave their hometowns. They stay, live in an almost perpetual cycle of unemployment, leading to an alarmingly high level of drug use (not the case in places like WY or ND because a lot of miners are transplants). Read this brief NPR interview. Over a span of six years, pharmaceutical companies have sent 400 pain pills to West Virginia for every person living in West Virginia .
Lack of adequate medical care (not enough doctors, etc) leads to pharmacies and pill mills just handing out pain medication and opioids like candy. Nobody in West Virginia is enforcing the law either which requires reporting of conspicuous levels of opioid orders and use. Why? They make too much money off it. It’s individual, independent pharmacies dealing these drugs out in such high numbers not chains like Walgreens or Wal-Mart. The wholesalers are making too much profit to care enough about halting their shipments either.