Al Smith: Building a path to a just transition away from coal

Journalist Al Smith recounted his story of recovery in his memoir Wordsmith.
Journalist Al Smith recounted his story of recovery in his memoir Wordsmith.

Flying home last weekend from a winter stay in Sarasota, a hard-luck town when I lived there in the Great Depression but now rich in tourism and retirees, I was called back to another chapter in my past, to Harlan County — Harlan County, USA, as the title of the famous movie goes.

In a season of extreme distress, several hundred of the most undaunted rural folks I ever met in this state, most of them a lot younger than I, were meeting for a conference with an incredibly optimistic title, "Appalachia's Bright Future."

Many of us who know the problems of the region — a steep decline in coal and employment, continued struggles with pollution of air and water and the serious health issues that come with land abuse, an epidemic of drug addiction and steady out-migration — might think, they screwed up the "b" word: Didn't they mean "bleak" future?

Not at all.

At the Harlan Center, this was a meeting of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, citizens who know how bad things are in the mountains, that their traditional "boom and bust" economy in the coalfields may never "boom" again. But instead of running away, or surrendering to despair, they think they can have a bright future —"if we build it," say their leaders.

Many Kentuckians famously cheer for school basketball teams. Mountain people are no different, but in slang terms, KFTC fights against another ball, "the eight ball" behind which many Appalachians have long felt oppressed in favor of coal interests.

In good times, coal provided jobs, but between the well being of the people and of coal, economic power and politics tilted the scales of justice toward coal.

For over 30 years that has been the mantra of KFTC which started life as a tiny band of populists agitating against control of land and resources by absentee owners who paid little or no taxes.

When a six-state coalition of like-minded folks secured a land ownership study that affirmed their suspicions, I was federal cochairman in Washington of the Appalachian Regional Commission that funded the study. KFTC then began campaigns that secured taxing of un-mined minerals, the end of the Broad Form Deed law (that permitted unregulated strip mining of private property leased for underground mining), and new laws protecting the environment, to some extent.

At Harlan last week, KFTC, now numbering 5,000 members, strongly disagreed with the "war on coal" claims of coal industry leaders who blame the Environmental Protection Agency and President Barack Obama for the national drop in coal use.

Citing the development of newly abundant and cheap natural gas and the depletion of easily accessible coal reserves, several dozen panelists called for a just transition away from coal. Workshops explored building local economies through arts and culture, a local food economy, land and stream reclamation, supporting entrepreneurship, sustainable forestry, expanding broadband internet access, and affordable housing.

"It is not who out there we can blame for our troubles. It's how we can take responsibility for ourselves and this place," said a speaker, Many attending were artists urging "a creative engagement and a moral economy."

"With a surplus in years past — of coal, oil, gas, natural beauty, public money — we didn't turn things around especially for the little guy," said Dee Davis, a noted Whitesburg activist. "Now what's really left is us. That's not nothing. It is a sober way forward."