The Grit

With the recent gas boom and the corresponding decline in coal production in West Virginia, there's been a resurgence of talk about the effect extractive industries have had and continue to have on the State. About how companies that are based in other states come here to do business but then take their profits elsewhere. This trend is difficult for obvious reasons--people here benefit only so long as a particular company is willing to pay them to work, and the profits that the companies earn are largely not reinvested in the West Virginia economy (aside from the occasional goodwill grant to schools or support for local events).

Most disturbing to me though is the emotional toll this type of exchange takes on people. Some develop a seemingly unwarranted sense of loyalty to the companies--or at least the industry--they work for, despite what seems to be a clear preference for profit over people. Perhaps when you can't see any other options, you have to fight for what you know. But to my mind, this leaves the state in general in a sort of weak, underdog position, loyal to the hand that feeds it.

The Coalfield Development Corporation seems to be tackling this issue head on, and I'm hopeful that their approach will give some former coal workers their power back. They employ people living in southern West Virginia as construction workers for 33 hours a week, building local housing and disassembling existing structures to salvage materials and market them to high-end markets in cities around the U.S. Employees must attend 6 hours a week of local community college classes and participate in 3 hours of life skills training. This group is set to receive $600,000 from the U.S. EDA to support their work, and it's so encouraging to see that this type of effort not only exists, but is actually doing quite well.

Here in northern West Virginia there are far fewer coal mines, but the mark of industry is still pronounced. From my house in Morgantown I could see a large gas rig located across the river until recently (they must have completed the well), and surrounding that well are various other plants. While personally I wish this city could wrap its mind around and implement some zoning laws with actual teeth, there is something appealing to me about these industrial structures--old and new--the lights, the colors, and the sheer boldness. Apparently it's not just me: photographers Alexander GronskyEdward Burtynsky, and Eric Tomberlin have made strikingly beautiful work out of relatively mundane, common structures.