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Mining People Magazine

Building and Repairing Legacies

by Debra McCown Thomas

Staff Writer / Field Reporter


oal has never promised stability. It’s a textbook example of boom and bust

– an industry where fortunes are made and lost on luck and timing.

When there’s a boom, it can take a whole region up with it. From 2007-9 was the

Great Recession, but in the coalfields of Central Appalachia you wouldn’t have

known it; riding the wave of $300-a-ton metallurgical coal, the region felt immune

to the headlines.

In these communities, a boom means activity. It means rural roads clogged with the traffic

of people going to work, and little businesses opening their doors like a stream gushing

over its banks after a heavy rain. It means home repairs and fresh coats of paint, new cars

and boats and four-wheelers and a spring of hope that maybe – just maybe – this time it

will last.

When the bottom inevitably drops out, it’s more than just an economic low; it’s an emotional

one as well. The businesses that close their doors are owned by good people – and so

are the houses left empty, the grass growing high while their owners are away in search

of employment.

Shrinking school attendance rolls and slacking revenue leave local governments trying

to figure out which schools to close and which services to cut. Schemes emerge claiming

to provide new economic answers – as if coal miners could somehow replace their lost

income with niche agriculture or wind turbines.

Intellectually, we all know how a boom-and-bust cycle works. We know it’s inevitable that

what goes up must come down – just as what goes down will eventually come back up.

But in the moment – whether you’re in the boom or the bust – that seems so painfully


Industry veterans who understand the cycle best get out at the peak; they retire when

business is booming. They know what’s coming, and they reach an age where they’re

willing to leave the fallout – and the resulting opportunity – to the next generation.

Those who take the reins do so knowing – and yet hoping against – the bust that will come,

with plans that they believe will get their companies and their people through. Some of

them succeed. Some of them don’t.

Then, with assets up for sale at a tiny fraction of their former worth, the next generation

of operators comes in, buying them with the belief that they can make shuttered mines

profitable again. As the market improves, they find success – and the next cycle begins.

Putting in everything to seize upon the opportunity, these entrepreneurs often come with a

grand vision – a plan to weather the bust and reach the elusive point of long-term stability.

People believe their vision; they hope, as they have before, that this one might finally have

it figured out. The climb toward the next boom is more than just an economic phenomenon;

it’s also a boom in hope. It’s a sense of opportunity that permeates people’s mindset at

every level.

Appalachia has a

valuable resource

that the world

needs. Each new

generation that

invests in the region

does so based on

that reality.