From Appalachia to the Navajo Nation, and the Illinois to the Powder River Basin, workers and families affected by the changing coal economy are facing a profound crisis. Coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services are hitting the people and communities already facing a decades-long economic decline, a black lung epidemic, and environmental devastation. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline, reliance on a troubled coal-based economy resulted in high poverty rates, deep job losses, and shrinking opportunity. Challenges—from decaying infrastructure to inadequate healthcare access to the opioid epidemic—only make the future of these communities more uncertain.
COVID-19 is making an already precarious economic situation in these communities more unstable. Many of these places haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, were struggling from the loss of manufacturing jobs, or were never on equal or strong footing to begin with. These new economic and public health crises are layered on to the existing crises spurred by the transition from coal and threaten to inflict more turmoil on people and communities. The national economic decline is accelerating the decline of the coal sector, likely leading to the rapid closure of even more coal facilities. That will leave more communities with little time to plan for the disappearance of their largest employer and the tax base that supports public services, local education, and health care systems. Challenges for communities of color and low-income communities already disproportionately left behind by the status quo multiply as already scarce resources, opportunities, and services are disappearing and exhausted. The people and places that powered our country for generations deserve much better.
Yet people living and working in American communities dependent on coal are confronting these challenges, spurring economic development, and charting their own paths to a bright and sustainable future. Local leaders are embracing innovative ideas that foster locally driven, equitable economic opportunity and build resilience to help weather future crises. Workers in Wayne, West Virginia are learning to install solar panels; Navajo communities and entrepreneurs near the recently closed coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Northern Arizona are launching clean energy and sustainable tourism enterprises and partnerships; and community members from Southwest Virginia to western Colorado are creating regional food markets. There are sustainable, equitable, and inclusive solutions for economic development for the people and places hit hardest by the transition away from coal, and they are driven by communities, built from the ground up.