Uncertain Future for US Towns Built on Coal

From Al Jazeera

By Roopa Gogineni

Calling for the United States to lead the “path towards sustainable energy”, President Obama came out strong on climate change during his second inaugural addresson January 21. The administration will likely redouble its efforts to limit emissions from coal-burning power plants, regulations that could force many to close.

One week earlier in West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to protect a different kind of climate in his inaugural speech – the state’s job climate.

“I will continue to protect and increase the production of coal,” Tomblin declared, explaining later in the speech that he intended to “[fight] the federal government to get off our backs and out of our way”.

While Tomblin and the powerful coal lobby battle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, the other front line is the Appalachian coalfields themselves.

Two imposing murals preside over Welch, a town in McDowell County, West Virginia. One depicts the town in the early 20th century, a coal-rich boomtown once called the New York City of West Virginia. Ford Model Ts line the streets.

About 100,000 people lived in McDowell County at its peak. “And they would all come to Welch on Saturday,” remembered Reba Honaker, the town’s mayor. “You couldn’t find a parking space.”

Today, the situation looks different and many believe lay-offs and the rise of drug abuse have pushed the town and surrounding region into decline. A battle between environmentalists and the mining industry over the future of extraction has been raging as the town looks to rebound.

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