Mining People Magazinewww.miningpeople.org
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
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
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
Appalachia has a
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