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Rebirth in the mountains

West Virginia is looking for additional industry sources — and alumnus Ben Gilmer is using old coal mines to jumpstart new jobs.

Along a mountaintop in southern West Virginia, a crew of three men and one woman spread and rake seeds over rows of tilled soil. 

Chickens, pigs and goats graze and putter around the budding farmland tucked away off 22 Mine Road near the Mingo-Logan county border. 

A wide range of goodies from corn to pumpkins to berries are expected to sprout from the ground, and there are plans for an apple, pawpaw and lavender tree orchard in the adjacent 12 acres. 

It’d been a while since this vast land had seen such lively activity. In a former life, it lived as a surface mine. 

A subsidiary of Arch Coal owned a permit to operate on 535 acres here from 1986 to 2001. The property has since been reclaimed and all of the coal, at least what was easy to get to, has been extracted. Economic prosperity vanished with it. 

This is a too-common story for rural America: Coal or factory operations cease or move to another site. People lose jobs. No promising alternatives are in sight. 

Reclaimed mine

Refresh Appalachia operates on a reclaimed surface mine site in southern West Virginia. The group hopes apple and pawpaw trees will ultimately dot the land.


Based on the latest figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the number of coal mines in the country dove 13 percent from 2014 to 2015. That’s from 985 mines down to 853. That same period saw a 12-percent decline in coal employment from 74,931 to 65,971 workers, the lowest in 20 years. 

As mines continue to shutter, America is left with many puzzle pieces to fit together. Among them:

- Where can displaced miners find gainful employment?
- How can we best use mined land? 
- If coal is fading as a prime resource for heating and electricity, what are some new energy sources?

In a state that epitomizes coal country, the West Virginia University community — from its energy experts to economists to alumni — is digging for answers and starting a resurgence.

Renewal 

Th reclaimed site on 22 Mine Road, the one with the clucking chickens, gruffy goats and rising vegetation, represents, in a roundabout sort of way, a rebirth of the land.

But it also represents a renewal of human capital. 

Those three men and one woman tending to the property all formerly worked in the coal industry. 

They’re part of a program called Refresh Appalachia, headed by Ben Gilmer, MA ’07, Geography.  

Refresh Appalachia is an enterprise of the Coalfield Development Corp. in southern West Virginia to expand food production, food access and agricultural jobs in the region. It’s a job training and education program that’s targeted to unemployed coal workers and young adults who grow food, manage animals and plot out distribution plans for their product. 

Gilmer, a Virginia native whose father worked in the mines, said the perception is that miners aren’t likely to seek employment in another field that would involve a significant pay cut.

“They also want to stay in the community and better themselves,” he said. “We’ve had people who’ve been laid off for three or four years apply. The conversation begins to change and they don’t think that job is coming back. So they start to make other plans. 

“You have to sacrifice a lot to be in this program. It takes a lot of courage to go in a completely different direction. It’s pretty inspiring.”

A single mom, Lola Cline, of Gilbert, W.Va., raised four daughters as an equipment operator on a strip-mining job. She was laid off for two years before gaining a spot with Refresh Appalachia. 

Lola Cline

Lola Cline, of Gilbert, W.Va., worked as an equipment operator on a strip-mining job before getting laid off. Here she puts her experience to use by driving a tractor in agriculture at a reclaimed mine site. 


Cline is used to paychecks that are almost triple the amount she earns now. Yet she soldiers on, saying she’s happy with any pay she can get.  

On this unseasonably warm fall day, she puts her equipment operating experience to use as she drives a tractor that spits seeds out onto the soil. 

Working alongside her is the grizzled, goateed Wilburn Jude, of Williamson, W.Va. 

As a boy, he rode four-wheelers up the hills and hollows around the land he now works for Refresh Appalachia. 

He spent 20 years underground in various mines, got laid off a few years ago and struggled to find a job. Jude could have left.

“But this is where I’m from, and this is where my kids are,” he said. 

On a good year at the coal mines, with overtime pay taken into account, Jude said he’d bring home more than $100,000 a year. 

Through a job placement agency, Jude found out about Refresh Appalachia and applied. He now makes about $22,000 a year. 

“I miss the money the most,” he said. “When I was working, I mostly gave it away. Now it’s hard to keep up on my own bills, much less helping anybody else.”

Refresh Appalachia isn’t solely offering employment for these displaced workers. They’re also teaching them life skills such as health and money management, which may have benefited Jude significantly back in his mining days. 

A cornerstone of Refresh Appalachia and Coalfield Development is its 33-6-3 program. Every week, workers spend 33 hours in on-the-job training, six hours in a college classroom and three hours learning about personal development. 

“These are skills we need to get through life,” Gilmer explained. “A lot of dislocated coal miners, they end up in the mines at 17- or 18-years-old and they’ve never had a financing class. They’re getting paid handsomely but they don’t always make the best financial decisions. So when it hits the fan, some aren't prepared.

“One guy had cheap rent, no kids and still couldn’t pay his bills. I found out he went to Go-Mart every morning and spent $20 on donuts and Red Bull. We try not to be preachy. But that certainly isn’t a good financial decision. It’s a process and we walk them through budgeting, credit repair and those sorts of things.”

The six hours of college is taken through Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College or Mountwest Community and Technical College, where Refresh members work toward an associate degree in applied science. Jude is the first in his family to attend college. He also recently earned a certificate of training in clandestine drug lab remediation. 

“I’m putting as many irons in the fire as possible,” he said. “I’ve got a few friends still working in the mines, but the pay has dropped significantly. Everyone talks about the coal business coming back. If it does, everyone will be making less money.”

Winter Crop

(l-r) Gilmer, crew chief James Russell and Jude get ready to unload sacks of winter cover crop.


Jude hopes his schooling and training certificates — he’s planning to get one in asbestos removal — will lead to another prosperous career. He’s banking on his Refresh Appalachia experience to push him along as well.  

“Maybe one day I can start a restaurant with home-grown vegetables” he said while gazing at the plowed soil nearby. “Start my own business. Then I can work for myself.” 

Down in a Hole

In the heart of coal country, the promise to revive — or kill — the once dominant industry struck a nerve with voters this last election cycle. Regardless of who is in power — from the White House to the county commission — most economic and energy experts agree on one outlook for coal: It will never be king again.

John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, doesn’t want to give bad news. He’s only reporting on the data and trends his office has studied.

A 2016 coal production report from the bureau has observed significant declines in West Virginia mining. While the bureau expects stability in the near term, slight declines will continue well into the future.

The causes of West Virginia mining’s downward spiral can be attributed to a multitude of factors:
  • Weak international demand.  
  • Federal regulations. 
  • The inexpensive cost of natural gas.
Deskins said that along with the automation of the industry, West Virginia’s geography and long history of mining also play a part. The state’s projected coal production tells a tale of two regions, with the southern part accounting for losses while the northern part expects to remain stable.

“Coal in southern West Virginia is better coal,” Deskins said. “It’s lower in sulfur and burns hotter. But that coal has been mined more aggressively over many years. There’s still coal left, but it’s deeper in the ground and the seams are thinner, meaning it’s much more expensive to extract compared to other parts of the country.”

The statewide downward trend is reflective of the nation as a whole. In 2008, coal was the source of half of the electricity generated in the country. That number is down to around 30 percent.

Coal forecast Baseline coal production
West Virginia coal production is expected to remain relatively stable over the next 20 years, ranging around 70 million short tons.
Strong exports
Coal export growth will taper off by the late 2020s but coal export tonnage will be one-third larger than the baseline forecast by 2036.
High natural gas prices
As natural gas prices climb higher in the next few years, drilling activity within the Marcellus and Utica Shale will pick back up and meet the fuel's expanded use in electricity generation.
Clean Power Plan
Under the Obama EPA's Clean Power Plan, West Virginia coal output would have fallen measurably during the outlook period down to less than 57 million short tons by 2036, or approximately 10 million short tons below baseline levels.

In rural America, the fall of coal sets forth an economic domino effect that stretches beyond the mines.

“When a coal miner making $75,000 loses his job, that’s less money he’ll be spending locally whether it be at the mom-and-pop restaurant or the car dealership,” Deskins said. “The loss trickles over.”

These consequences across Appalachia will be part of a study out of WVU and the University of Tennessee that is supported by a $350,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. 

“Our research will be the first to establish the complete economic impact of coal’s decline across Appalachian communities and, as such, our work will be critical in properly directing economic redevelopment efforts in coming years in light of coal’s decline,” Deskins said.

While there’s no obvious single solution, diversifying the economy is a start, Deskins added. Outside of the energy sector, West Virginia has experienced no economic growth output in five years, he said.

Powered by Possibilities

Inside the energy sector, there are several promising areas that could grow the region’s economy. In 2014, WVU President E. Gordon Gee recognized the need to launch a one-stop think tank to crack energy issues. 

To lead the WVU Energy Institute, he chose Brian Anderson, BS ’00, Chemical Engineering, who received his PhD at MIT and was awarded the U.S. President’s Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. 

Anderson’s father grew up in a coal camp outside of Montgomery, W.Va., and his grandfather was a miner who suffered from black lung disease for decades. Anderson spent time working at the Century Aluminum plant in Ravenswood, W.Va., which stopped production in 2009, another victim of a shifting economy. 

At the WVU Energy Institute, Anderson helps coordinate and promote University-wide energy research in engineering, science, technology and policy that involves more than 150 researchers who study everything from biomass to shale gas to solar power. 

“We’re not just doing hard science energy research,” Anderson said. “We’re looking at ways to craft policy frameworks and models to help identify a pathway forward.”

Anderson said energy is at a complex crossroads, moving toward cleaner use of fossil fuels and more sustainable global energy production. 

WVU researchers are working to develop more energy options in the state by examining sources that include bioenergy, geothermal energy, ice-like forms of water called gas hydrates, and wood biomass, which involves the harvesting of dead trees, branches and stumps. 

Wood energy research only makes sense, Anderson said, as West Virginia ranks third in forest cover by state, behind Maine and New Hampshire, and sees its wood products, such as furniture and hardwood flooring, contribute $4 billion annually to the economy. 

One of the contributors to coal’s decline could also create a few jobs, he said, but likely not on the same scale of the coal industry’s heyday. 

Three natural gas-fired power plants are being built in Harrison, Marshall and Brooke counties in West Virginia and are expected to be online within a few years. 

“Power companies are shutting down coal plants and opening natural gas plants,” Anderson said. “This isn’t just happening in West Virginia. Coal can’t compete with natural gas today.”

Not only is natural gas cheaper but it is cleaner, Anderson said. 

“Natural gas doesn't have sulfur or mercury,” he said. “It has a higher thermal efficiency, and you don’t have to deal with as much environmental cleanup.

“We roughly export three-fourths of the coal we mine. Of the one-quarter we keep in the state, we convert that to electricity and export two-thirds of that. Therefore, West Virginia, as a user, uses only one-ninth of the coal it mines. 

“As our neighbors and others around the world use natural gas to produce power, then we'll sell less of that coal. That’s why we have to be in front of the charge on natural gas. We have it, but we need to leverage it.”

Silver BBs

Back at the reclaimed mine site in Holden, W.Va., Ben Gilmer, the president of Refresh Appalachia, reflects on how his life and mining are entwined.

Gilmer, who grew up in a coal town called Lebanon, Va., with a population of more than 3,000 near the West Virginia border, admitted he “barely got through” high school. The mines were an option, though his father dissuaded him from that path. 

“He said, ‘You’re going to college,’” Gilmer recalled. “Growing up in the coalfields, you really don’t know what all’s out there.”

Gilmer took his first geography class at the suggestion of a friend who thought it could help them find the best hunting and fishing spots. It ended up leading him to find economic development spots in the southern coalfields. In addition to the farm site, he’s developing an urban rooftop greenhouse in downtown Williamson and an aquaponics operation — which includes both fish farming and agriculture — in Kermit that will utilize geothermal energy from an abandoned mine shaft and solar power.

He knows the region has a deep connection to coal. He also knows that there is a need for jobs, and that they’re likely to come from several sources. 

“There’s a healthy dose of folks hoping that coal will come back,” Gilmer said. “Our region also recognizes the need to diversify the economy. The silver bullet definitely isn’t agriculture. But, as some of my colleagues like to say, while we’re not a silver bullet, there can be a lot of silver BBs.” 

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