Ingenuity + money = flourishing enterprises on Central Appalachia coalfields

Whitesburg, Ky.—If hollowed out minelands and communities of Central Appalachia are to be restored in some fashion, then the vision for the region’s future has to extend beyond infrastructure for federal prisons and natural gas pipelines.

That’s what Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center says he hears as he crisscrosses the area.

“Communities have been calling for policies that leverage the two opportunities together—invest more in mine cleanup and link it with economic development,” says Dixon, the policy and community engagement coordinator for the 16-year-old nonprofit.

The three-year-old Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot Program, funded by the U.S. Treasury, is a start. Kentucky has received $80 million of that federal pie since its launch in 2016 to retrain workers, clean up mines and boost the economy.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky.

Annual investments in such projects are an exciting boost, Dixon says, but “transitioning the regional economy will require hundreds of millions of dollars.” 

That’s one of the reasons an Appalachian coalition is pushing for Congress to free up $1 billion for similar projects by passing what’s known as the RECLAIM Act. That money already exists in a separate pot funded by coal operators. 

The law center, which has long focused on black lung disease and other environmental issues, has recently extended its reach into spreading awareness about the pilot program and the RECLAIM legislation.

“East Kentucky’s greatest asset is our people,” Dixon says about locals willing to innovate. They “could benefit from financial support of just and sustainable, bottom-up development enterprises.”

Read about three of those endeavors, two in Kentucky and one in adjacent Virginia, here:

Project Intersection: From Mine to Industrial Park

NORTON, Va—The eye-catching Post Office and Miners Rescue Station stands majestically in the heart of downtown, a mile from where U.S. Highways 23 and 58A come to a junction at an ugly blot on the landscape.

The Post Office and Miners Rescue Station in Norton, Va.

The former will continue to be a mail-sorting nexus as it has since 1915, while the latter—an old surface coal mine—is due for a major facelift after being selected as a pilot project by Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME).

Virginia has directed $3.5 million of the $10 million it was allotted in 2017 via the federal AML Pilot Program to transform the 200-acre site into a manufacturing hub.

Aptly dubbed “Project Intersection,” the city of Norton site was one of six reclamation projects selected in Southwest Virginia from the 15 submitted proposals.

“These are resources that can help us help ourselves,” says Fred Ramey, city manager since 2012. “We’re optimistic we have a plan to make things better.”

Norton was named for the founder of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, the main mover of the coal and timber harvested in the mountains surrounding the plateau where the town was incorporated in 1894. In 1954, it became the first city in Wise County.

By 2010, its population hovered at about 4,000. And that doubled daily as people from seven other counties in Virginia and Kentucky flocked to its two hospitals and vibrant professional, commercial and shopping options.

The city absorbed a double whammy over the last decade or so when coal jobs nosedived and the natural gas industry fled for riper options north and west in the Marcellus Shale play.

Fossil fuel severance taxes to the state dropped, as did Norton’s “bread and butter” revenue, the retail sales tax, Ramey says.

Fred Ramey

“It’s almost as if you go through a grief period as you come to understand this is the new normal,” he says. “Then we had to pick ourselves up, dust off and move forward.”

Those shifts prompted a cooperative pursuit of AML funding. Just because Project Intersection was in the city, Norton didn’t have the desire or wherewithal to go it alone.

Enter Lenowisco. That’s the nickname for the regional planning district that includes Norton and three counties, Lee, Wise and Scott. Lenowisco then boosted its partnership clout and flexibility by forming the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (RIFA) and brought elected officials and representatives from the University of Virginia-Wise to the grant application table.

Lonesome Pine RIFA will be coordinating the multi-phased development of Project Intersection.

A first step is purchasing the land from local buyers. Another is removal of a high wall, a remnant of the property’s mining pre-1977 past. More recently, Landmark Coal Co. received a permit to mine on about 176 acres in 1983, according to DMME records. Landmark mined there until 1989, then completed land reclamation on the site by 1996.

The entire site earned a top ranking among its competitors by being adjacent to two four-lane highways and having access to utility infrastructure.

“We can’t just say, ‘We need jobs,'”says Ramey, a Norton native. “We had to have places ready to show to potential businesses. Now we do.”

Ideally, he continues, the site will attract advanced manufacturing jobs that allow local residents to raise families and stay in the mountains they love.

Norton is diversifying in other ways, too. The city has turned its historic downtown hotel into a call center. Its hiking and mountain biking trails and access to adjacent Jefferson National Forest are a magnet for the outdoorsy set.

Other draws are Flag Rock Overlook and a winsome statue of the area’s very own Woodbooger (think Bigfoot).

“This is part of what government is supposed to do to help its citizens,” Ramey says about the joint effort to land Project Intersection. “It’s about finding common ground with neighboring communities to find opportunities for our people.”

Elk Now Roam On Mountaintop Leveled in Pursuit of Coal

BELL COUNTY, Ky.—David Ledford dares to think big. Enormously big.

That boldness has made him brave enough to turn a long-joked- about “bridge to nowhere” off Highway 119 into a “gateway to somewhere”—a 12,000-acre refuge on a mountain that had its top blown off in the quest for coal.

He envisions thousands of visitors arriving by car, bus and recreational vehicle and paying an admission fee to be immersed in what he’s calling the Appalachian Wildlife Center.

David Ledford

“There’s nothing like this within 300 miles in any direction,” he says, steering his pickup truck to the site where he plans to break ground on an 80,000 square foot, $18 million center that will house a restaurant, gift shop, museum, artwork, classrooms and a theater. “People can’t even comprehend what we are going to do.”

The “we” is Ledford, a certified biologist and president/CEO of the Corbin-based Appalachian Wildlife Foundation that he started with his business partner, Frank Allen.

Access to $12.5 million of Kentucky’s AML Pilot Program money in 2016 accelerated their idea of transforming the mine site between Harlan and Pineville into an economic engine. Allen, the fundraising part of the team, is seeking millions more from other sources.

“There’s a severe lack of capital in coal country,” says Ledford, who grew up in Eastern Tennessee. “This part of the world gets next to nothing.”

Acquiring the land, which he and Allen first spied in 2014, was a two-part deal. One was buying 500 acres that several counties had tried to groom as an industrial park, thus the construction of the sturdy boondoggle “bridge to nowhere.”

Next came a long-term lease on the 11,000 adjacent acres from Asher Land and Mineral.

The center has hired local police officers to serve as guards, who spend significant time on the remote property shooing away ATV operators and cleaning up needles and other paraphernalia drug users leave behind.

If the center opens in 2020, as planned, Ledford expects to employ 166 on-site scientists and other specialists within five years. An ambitious business plan predicts its proximity to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Great Smoky Mountains National Park will help annual attendance grow to at least 868,000 and add more than 2,800 area jobs by 2025. The endeavor could inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the regional economy, research shows.

Ledford doesn’t expect the refuge land, last mined in the late 1980s, to look like it did in its pre-mountaintop removal days.

“People think the only way to reclaim a mine is to reforest it,” he says. “And that’s not right.”

His goal of a giant grassland, he says, is in keeping with the research he conducts on the landscapes that existed centuries ago when Daniel Boone and others were traversing the Cumberland Gap.

Ledford has deployed prescribed burns and herbicides to knock back non-native plants and allow native grasses, shrubs and trees to prosper.

“Imported” elk are abundant on the Appalachian Wildlife Center property.

That mix is a perfect habitat for the elk transported from elsewhere in Kentucky. The state started reintroducing the long-gone species in the late 1990s. The refuge also will be a magnet for imperiled and migratory birds large and small, and for bears, bobcats and deer.

A self-guided driving tour and hiking trails will give everybody from the casual visitor to bird enthusiasts access to nature. Exhibits, research projects and educational programs, such as the center’s link to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, will be cornerstones to those connections.

“We’re bringing this stuff back,” Ledford says. “That’s the story we’re going to tell here. That even in coal country in Appalachia, this happened.”

Earning Power: Laid-off Miners go from Coal to Utility Work in Their Own Back Yard

HAZARD, Ky.—In spring 2015, James Sloane’s world was falling apart. His father was dying. And he was on the verge of losing the family homestead after being laid off for the first time after 23 years in the coal industry.

James Sloane

Sloane, embarrassed about not having an income, listened to a co-worker’s advice about a retraining program for miners at the local community college. Today, the 46-year-old earns very good wages as a mechanic for the utility contractor, Five Star Electric.

“This was a lifesaver for me,” says Sloane, seated in the office of Keila Miller, who coordinates the retraining. “They opened the door for the quickest way for me to get back to work.”

Miller is director of workforce solutions at Hazard Community and Technical College. Since 2013, she and others have helped 269 laid-off coal workers find similar utility jobs using funding from the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.

She is elated that a sister technical college in adjacent Leslie County will be expanding that retraining as a project funded by a $1.15 million grant from the AML Pilot Program. That college is in the midst of designing and building an electrical substation on abandoned mine lands that will be the centerpiece of the new program.

The Hazard campus, in Perry County, leapt into action training laid-off miners five years ago when the domino effect of coal’s collapse was shuttering trucking companies, convenience stores, machine shops and heavy equipment suppliers.

James Sloane at the campus pole yard with his mentor Keila Miller.

Educators put the on-campus pole yard to use by putting Sloane and dozens of others through 12 intense weeks of line worker, fiber optics and commercial driver’s license training. The program covered all student expenses, except the mandatory $30 drug test.

“If you want to work, Keila will do everything to help you,” says Sloane, who enrolled in fall 2015.

The students joked with Keila about being “Warden Miller,” but her firm and gentle guidance is what has contributed to a 90 percent graduation rate. Graduates have traveled as far as Puerto Rico and as close as Virginia to help utilities overwhelmed by hurricanes and snowstorms.

“Our motto is, ‘If you give us 100 percent, we’ll give 110 percent back to help you find a job,'” Miller says.

The training programs came about because leaders in the region feared losing laid-off miners to out-of-state jobs.

“We asked them, ‘What are you looking for?'” Miller says. “The number one request was a comparable wage and not to have to move away.” 

That resonates with Sloane, a Knott County native who came home to the mines after he got out of the Army.

He lost a vehicle after his layoff, but finding a new job meant the father of two could keep his home. 

James Sloane with his work truck.

“When your parents and grandparents worked their hind end off for that land and then gave it to you,” says Sloane, pausing to catch his breath.

“To lose it and have some total stranger living there. Even thinking about that, that’s painful.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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