— A new film sparks energy for transition from coal.

Coal is the word on everyone’s lips right now, especially in West Virginia. What began as a thriving solution for powering America so many years ago has become an unsustainable industry that has been steadily declining for several decades.

As the 2017 film From the Ashes details, this decline has its pros and cons: while it opens the door for new and improved energy industries, it is simultaneously causing economic peril in states like West Virginia where coal was once the leading employer. And despite agreement among most scientists, there are those who still doubt the effects human activity has on climate change.

But From the Ashes adds more to the story, shifting the focus from solely environmental degradation to something much more personal: people’s health. Climate change discussions aside, the film shows clear evidence that the coal industry is harming the health of American citizens, and suggests it’s more important than ever that Americans work together toward a better solution for both present and future generations.

Mary Anne Hitt, a resident of Shepherdstown and director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, is one of the narrators of the film. As someone who has been working to eliminate coal pollution for 15 years, first with           Appalachian Voices and now at the Sierra Club, Hitt is an expert when it comes to understanding the full scope of coal’s problems. Her role in the film is to help break down the issues—such as air and water pollution and mountaintop removal mining—and provide a greater look at the path forward for America’s energy supply and coal communities.

“The film tells the national story of our current shift away from coal, including the grassroots movement I help lead that has retired half the nation’s coal plants,” Hitt explained. “It explores what that transition means for coal communities, national politics, and our climate and energy future. It’s both a state and national story that’s more timely than ever.”

The purpose is to deepen the dialogue about coal and demonstrate that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the industry’s effects on American neighborhoods.

“I think one of the most powerful things about the film is that it shows how all Americans are connected to coal and affected by its pollution, whether they realize it or not,” Hitt reflected. “When you see families in places like Dallas or North Carolina who have young kids with asthma or unsafe drinking water linked to a coal power plant … you understand why they’re fighting so hard to shift this country to clean energy.”

How to Move Beyond Coal

But some are not so eager for the shift if it means giving up the only job they’ve ever known. Coal has a long history in many American families, employing generations of workers as a proud tradition. And proud they should be—coal miners are hardworking laborers, regularly risking their lives for their loved ones to help power America. Many have now been left without a way to provide for their families, and with pushback from coal companies and coal supporters against wind and solar, it can feel like there’s no end in sight.

Those advocating for a transition to clean energy recognize that these skilled workers must be given new opportunities to support themselves and build a sustainable career. Hitt believes the best way to do so is to diversify the economy in coal mining communities, which she says requires three ingredients: local entrepreneurship, financial resources, and political leadership.

“We have some great local projects and initiatives, like the work of the Coalfield Development Corporation featured in the film,” she offered. “But their work is harder than it should be because our political leaders won’t yet acknowledge that coal isn’t coming back.”

Brandon Dennison of Coalfield Development speaks with workers at a construction site in Wayne County (WV). – Photo ©Matthew Henderson

Hitt insists that, as a nation, America has not put adequate financial resources into economic diversification for coal communities.

“All Americans have benefited from the sacrifice of coal workers and communities,” she emphasized. “I think the best way to honor that sacrifice is for our nation to provide the resources necessary to build a diverse economy that can sustain the generations as our country continues moving beyond coal.”

Change from the top down has been slow, but it’s happening. A bill moving in Congress called the RECLAIM Act would release $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund for the economic diversification and land reclamation work necessary to rebuild and grow mining communities.

“Passing that legislation would go a long way toward jumpstarting new opportunities in those areas, and we hope Congress will pass the bill this session,” Hitt surmised.

In Kentucky, a project called SOAR is working to diversify eastern Kentucky’s economy—a project similar to one Senator Jeff Kessler launched in West Virginia called SCORE.

“Unfortunately, SCORE was put on the back burner when the Republicans took over our state legislature,” pronounced Hitt. “Most of our elected official are closing their eyes to economic reality and just wishing that coal will come back, when what we need is a clear-eyed view of how to build our future as coal continues its irreversible decline.”

As of 2017, there are only 50,000 coal mining jobs left in the U.S. and over 300,000 wind and solar jobs, which are on track to keep growing—while coal jobs regress.

“Economic diversification is about more than just energy, but renewables are an example of the kinds of opportunities we should be bringing to coal communities,” Hitt added.

Clean energy jobs offer workers, communities, and the environment the best option when it comes to health, safety, and financial stability—but as Hitt points out, these jobs can only come when elected officials, utilities, businesses, and local leaders work together to make it happen.

“In coal mining areas, state and federal leaders have been a lot more reluctant to embrace that future, so these opportunities are passing us by for friendlier pastures—hopefully we can change that,” she said.

With 7,500 Americans dying from coal pollution each year, moving beyond coal is imperative. So far, the Beyond Coal Campaign that Hitt leads has already retired half of the nation’s coal plants in just seven years, and their long-term goal is to have the U.S. grid powered entirely by clean, renewable energy before 2030—a goal Hitt believes they can reach with the support of residents, companies, and political leaders.

“No new coal plants are being built in the U.S., and the existing plants that remain are getting older and having a hard time competing with renewables,” she noted. “So, states like ours, that have been historically dependent on coal, need to get out in front of this transition and plan for it, rather than bury our heads in the sand.”


— Kristyn is a freelance writer living in Charles Town (WV).

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