Wild, Wonderful, and Vulnerable: How Climate Change is Ravaging Appalachia

I’ve endured, I’ve endured. How long can one endure?

-Ola Belle Reed

Rolling blankets of green, lush, and wild for miles. Climbing up cliffs and new worlds open as ears gently pop with the high altitude. A drive through the heart of Appalachian country in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia reveals rich wildlife, biodiversity, and culture. While many may equate Appalachia with hillbillies and banjos, a closer look tells a different story. Tucked away in the hills is a travel industry generating 60 billion dollars and employing nearly 600,000 thousand people over the region. Most notably, Appalachia mines around a third of the nation’s coal, providing significant energy and jobs for the local population. 

In mid-February this year, severe weather tore through the United States and Appalachian counties made national news as floods ravaged their communities. For weeks, residents faced power outages and road closures as many counties declared a state of emergency. While rivers and mountain streams overflowed, mudslides heightened the damage. Much like the ice storm in Texas, Appalachian communities were wildly unprepared. As climate change increases both the severity and rate of natural disasters, poor communities face the majority of the damage, ensuring that this flood will not be an isolated incident if measures aren’t taken to combat climate change.

Coal and Climate Change

It is impossible to discuss climate change without also talking about the coal industry. While coal usage is not the only human factor that propels climate change, it is inextricably connected to it. Burning coal releases a variety of dangerous emissions that pollutes both air and water alike. The most notorious of these is carbon dioxide (CO₂), the compound responsible for the greenhouse effect that promotes global warming by trapping radiation and heat within the atmosphere. An increase in CO₂ has also been linked to a rise in major flood events globally, some of which we have already witnessed in the past year in the United States. 

As coal burns in power plants all over the eastern United States, toxic chemicals such as mercury integrate into the water supply, endangering both humans and wildlife who rely on it. Many of these adverse health effects are immediate. 1 in 5 coal miners in Appalachia have had symptoms of Black Lung, a respiratory illness caused by consistent inhalation of coal dust while mining underground. Whether burning or stagnant, coal is a danger to anyone who inhales it.

In an effort to decrease the cost and danger of underground mining, over 60% of active mines in Appalachia are on the surface. The process of surface mining is controversial, often known as mountaintop removal to access the seams of coal running just below the peaks of mountains. As mountaintops are blasted away, the landscape is forever altered. 

A recent study found that strip-mined areas see an increase in streamflow as “waste rock” fills natural basins, and runoff has nowhere to go but down. Residents living on and at the bottom of strip mined mountains face a high risk of damage from flooding and mudslides as the natural forest barriers are removed to access the mines. Flooding and water contamination drive out many natural species, leaving over 500 mountains in Appalachia barren and unable to sustain life.

Environmental Impact

Over a hundred years of reliance on coal has entered Appalachia into a vicious cycle of cause and effect. With over a million acres of land affected, Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia bore the brunt of it. Damage from climate change is increasing in severity and frequency, causing close to two trillion dollars in damage since 2000. Globally, these natural disasters drive more people into poverty while disproportionately affecting the poor.

 Over 16% of Appalachians live in poverty, 2% higher than the national average with the lowest median household income in Central Appalachia. Those living above the poverty line do not fare much better, with the average median household income at only 83% of the national average. On average, Appalachians have lower incomes than the rest of the United States despite providing a considerable amount of the national energy supply.

Communities in poverty are less prepared to combat major natural disasters compared to wealthier communities. Nearly 60% of Americans are unable to cover an unexpected major expense. This percentage increases in regions with greater concentrations of poverty. The Appalachian region, particularly Central Appalachia, also reports a higher percentage of residents receiving disability benefits than the national average, reflecting poor health outcomes in addition to low income. When natural disasters strike, both the poor and disabled residents are the first to receive most of the damage. 

A Way of Life

The coal mining industry consistently divides both environmentalists and locals alike. While the effects of coal may be controversial, the social impact is definite. The coal industry has provided opportunity in Appalachia for over a century, supplying consistent jobs in rural areas with low access to education and economic growth. While factory jobs dissipated over the 20th century, coal mining remained a consistent source of employment. 

The importance of coal is not just economic. As the industry became ingrained in the daily life of Appalachia, it also influenced the culture. Through arts such as folk music, literature, and even cuisine, the impact of coal is substantial, providing Appalachia with a sense of pride and accomplishment for defying odds in a region with few other economic opportunities. 

Abolishing the coal industry would also eliminate an entire way of life for thousands of Appalachian residents. Losing both a major source of energy and income would decimate Appalachia’s already delicate economy, forcing more people into poverty while doing nothing to treat the immediate threat of climate change. While the entire United States should strive towards cleaner energy to prevent further degradation of the environment, there are more immediate measures that local government and corporations can take to ensure safer mining practice without eliminating the industry entirely.

As coal mining presents many occupational hazards in addition to long-term environmental effects, corporations must focus on mitigating damage through revamped rules and regulations. Currently, mining standards reflect outdated data, failing to take 21st-century climate into account while designing strip mines, particularly the stormwater management systems that help redirect the flow of water runoff after a mine is filled back in. An increase in storms requires better planning by mining corporations to prevent severe flooding in nearby towns.

A Promising Future

While coal mining supplies many jobs to the region, the Appalachian economy is primarily stimulated by their travel industry. This industry would not succeed without the many natural bounties Appalachia offers, such as the Appalachian hiking trail, natural waterfalls, and streams for white water rafting. Water pollution from strip mining could ruin Appalachia’s primary source of income, driving the region even further into poverty without ever closing a single mine. 

Although essential to consider the cultural impact of coal, placing all hope in one industry makes it impossible for the region to adjust in the face of adversity. Diversity in the market is essential for a thriving economy. Stimulating job growth by protecting existing industries while inviting new ones to the region will help pull Appalachia out of poverty, and help reduce the environmental impact of coal by minimizing the region’s reliance on the coal industry. 

As many companies adjust their business models after the impact of COVID-19, they have found that working remotely is much cheaper, with many deciding to continue the practice after social distancing protocols are lifted by public officials. Working remotely allows employees to be hired from anywhere in the country, a promising possibility for the Appalachian region to diversify its job market. 

Appalachia is known for enduring adversity. Mountain folk music inspired an entire genre of country music, loved by many for its relatability and brutal honesty. In Appalachia, the sense of community is strong, empowering residents to overcome challenges from poverty to heartbreak. But after decades of suffering, the region is weary. Without assistance and intervention, how long can one endure?

By: Leah Bookout

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