Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia*

Abstract Economic changes and the machinations of the treadmill of
production have dramatically reduced the number of jobs provided by extractive
industries, such as mining and timber, in the United States and other
affluent nations in the post–World War II era. As the importance of these
industries to national, regional, and local economies wanes, community resistance
to ecologically and socially destructive industry practices threatens the
political power of corporations engaged in natural-resource extraction. Here
we argue that to maintain their power (and profits) as their contribution to
employment declines, extractive industries have increased their efforts to
maintain and amplify the extent to which the “economic identity” of communities
is connected with the industry that was historically an important source
of employment. We fit this argument within the neo-Marxian theoretical
tradition, which emphasizes the roles ideology and legitimation play in maintaining
elite rule. We illustrate this theorized process by analyzing the efforts
of the West Virginia coal industry, which, through its (faux) “grassroots” front
group “Friends of Coal,” attempts to construct the image that West Virginia’s
economy and cultural identity are centered on coal production. Our analysis
relies on content analysis of various sources and on experience gained from
field research. We find that key strategies of the Friends of Coal include
efforts to become pervasively visible in the social landscape and the appropriation
of cultural icons that exploit the hegemonic masculinity of the
region. These findings have implications for how industries around the
country, and the world, work to maintain their power through ideological
In the wake of industrialization and “post industrialization,” natural resource
extraction has played a diminishing role in the economies of
affluent nations. Although the United States, like other countries of the
Global North, has continued to consume vast quantities of natural
resources, the contribution of extractive industries to total employment
and to total national economic production—as typically measured by
* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Sociological Association
meetings in San Francisco, August 2009. We are very grateful to Michael Schulman and the
three anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of our paper and insightful suggestions
for improvement.
gross domestic product—has been declining for decades. This decline
primarily has been due to mechanization and to imports of raw materials
from the Global South. This national-level pattern has manifested itself
across the United States in a variety of communities that historically were
closely connected to extractive industries, such as timber and mining.
Due to this legacy, many rural communities are left with an identity tied
to a particular extractive industry, even though that industry no longer
provides many jobs or plays a dominant role in the local or regional
economy. This tendency for many in a community to identify with an
industry that was historically important in the local economy, but that may
not be any longer, is regularly exploited by extractive industries to
maintain their political influence, which is often used to avoid government
regulations aimed at ensuring the protection of the environment
and public health.
Here we provide some theoretical conceptualizations for understanding
the development and perpetuation of community economic identities
tied to extractive industries, focusing on how economic identity is influenced
by the active contemporary framing1 efforts (Snow et al. 1986) of
these industries, which aim to define themselves as the backbone of local
and regional economies. We identify the industries’ framing work as
“economic identity maintenance” and “amplification.” As part of this
theorization, we document how the contribution of extractive industries
to the economies of communities around the nation has declined dramatically
while these extractive industries continue to create large-scale
environmental problems. In particular, with the massive job losses that are
the typical outcome of the “treadmill of production” (Schnaiberg 1980),
the bond that has historically maintained the loyalties of many rural
communities to extractive industries has been dramatically weakened, if
not destroyed. One of our key aims is to help determine why some
communities continue to support industries that cause harm—for
example, by degrading the environment—while providing few (and
declining) benefits, such as reliable high-paying jobs. To illustrate the
processes we discuss, we provide an empirical assessment of how the coal
industry in West Virginia attempts to suppress political opposition to the
destructive effects of coal mining by actively working to maintain and
1 “Framing,” also referred to as “frame alignment,” is a process of “assign[ing] meaning
to and interpret[ing]” certain “events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize
potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize
antagonists” (Snow and Benford 1988:198). In other words, framing is the way in which
organizations package their message for their intended audience in an attempt to make
the activities, goals, and ideology of the organization appear “congruent and complementary”
with the values, beliefs, and interests of the public (Snow et al. 1986:464).
reinforce the centrality of coal to the identity of the state and local
The Treadmill of Production and the Legitimation Process
The “treadmill of production” model is one of the most influential and
important theories in the environmental sociology literature (Buttel
2004; Foster 2005; Foster and York 2004). First introduced by Allan
Schnaiberg (1980) in order to explain why environmental degradation
in the United States had grown dramatically since World War II, the
treadmill of production model argues that ecological destruction is
intrinsic to capitalist (as well as some other) modes of production.
Schnaiberg contended that the economic boom following World War II
led to increased production and profits, which were invested in the
development of new production technologies. These technologies came
with large operating expenses that needed to be financed, however, and
industries responded to these fixed costs by further increasing production
so as to increase profits. The increase in production led to an
escalating need for natural resources, which were extracted at greater
rates and used in ways that “substantially increased both the volume of
production waste and the toxicity of wastes” (Gould, Pellow, and
Schnaiberg 2004:300). This pattern of increasing extraction and degradation
in order to generate greater and greater profits has become the
central operating framework of the global market. It is widely held that
the treadmill of production, along with the ecological degradation it
generates, is unavoidable unless the relations of production under corporate
capitalism are changed (Buttel 2004; Foster 2005; Foster and York
2004; Gould et al. 2004; Schnaiberg 1980).
The effects of the treadmill of production are not limited to the
ecological, however; displaced workers are another result. “Improvements”
in technology lead to an increase in “worker productivity,” which
accelerates the treadmill, “producing higher production and profits with
fewer workers” (Gould et al. 2004:306). This pattern, where jobs decline
even while production expands, is clearly visible in the case of naturalresource
extraction industries, particularly timber and mining. For
example, in an analysis of the connection between timber jobs and
federal timber harvests, Freudenburg, Wilson, and O’Leary (1998) show
that following World War II, both in the Pacific Northwest and in the
United States as a whole, the number of timber jobs declined dramatically
while federal timber harvests increased. In fact, they note that job
losses were highest before the implementation of federal environmental
laws in the 1960s and ’70s, refuting the claim that environmental regu-
lations, such as those giving protection to the northern spotted owl in
the Pacific Northwest, were the primary cause of the decline of rural
timber economies in the 1980s and ’90s. Similarly, as Figure 1 reveals,
while coal production increased dramatically in West Virginia from the
late 1970s to the 1990s, coal-mining employment declined substantially,
as it has generally done in the postwar era. This trend was not limited to
West Virginia; national-level data on coal production
and employment reveal an even starker negative association, where production
rose as jobs declined. As the above evidence indicates, a pattern
exists among extractive industries: consistent with treadmill of production
theorizing, even when production increases in these industries,
employment levels decrease.
The overall consequences of corporate capitalism for the economy and employment
structure are, of course, more complicated than the treadmill model may suggest. New
types of jobs (e.g., information technology) may be created as other types of jobs (e.g.,
mining) disappear, so that the net effect of the treadmill may not always be overall job
losses. However, the pattern described by the treadmill model does generally hold when
focusing on manufacturing and extractive industry jobs.

Gould et al. (2004) draw attention to an important intersection
between ecological degradation and jobs: Historically, those individuals
who are the most affected by industrial pollution and environmental
damage also typically have been dependent on the jobs within the polluting
industries. Pollution and degradation have become “geographically
and socially removed” from the middle class, which has the money
to move upstream and upwind from the contamination and destruction,
while blue-collar workers have been “induced and/or coerced” to live in
close proximity to pollution, in part due to the lower housing prices in
these areas (298). Thus, many of the people suffering the most acute
costs of ecological degradation are some of the least likely to fight against
the treadmill processes because of their economic dependence on the
destructive industries. Furthermore, many will even fight for the companies
polluting their communities or destroying their ecosystems because
they fear further job losses if environmental regulations are tightened.
This system works to discourage mobilization against these industries,
while at the same time producing an arsenal of workers that can be
mobilized to create a countermovement for the industry in opposition to
any efforts to impose stricter environmental regulations and disrupt
treadmill processes.
However, when there is a large-scale reduction in jobs, and employment
no longer connects an industry to the community it pollutes, why
do communities continue to support industry, even though industrial
practices have detrimental social and environmental effects? This question
points to a lacuna in the treadmill theory, which has not focused on
analyzing the various ways industry gains compliance from workers and
the general public other than through providing jobs. In an effort to
advance treadmill theory, here we examine the role ideology plays in
legitimating the dominance of industries. We argue that public acquiescence
to the wishes of industry is in part achieved by industries’ calculated
efforts to reconstruct a bond with the communities they degrade,
attempting to replace the employment connection between industry and
community with a constructed ideology of dependency and economic
Critical traditions, from Marxism to feminism, have often emphasized
how ideology is employed to further the interests of those in power by
mystifying the nature of social relations and the causes of oppression.
The role of ideology in maintaining capitalism was explored by Marx and
Engels (1991) and has been a central theme of Western Marxism since
its foundation in the works of Lukács ([1923] 1972) and Gramsci (1971).
Horkheimer and Adorno (1972), leading lights of the Frankfurt School,
where “critical theory” was born, produced particularly influential work
examining the emergence of a “culture industry” in capitalist societies,
which manufactured cultural goods for mass consumption (e.g., Hollywood
movies, corporate media) that lulled the public into accepting the
capitalist status quo. Since these foundational works, analyses of how
culture and ideology are manufactured and manipulated in order to
further elite interests have become a central part of research on the
power structure (Habermas 1975; Herman and Chomsky 2002; Lukes
1974; Mann 1970; Mészáros 1989).
The work of Jürgen Habermas, the most renowned heir to the tradition
of the Frankfurt School, is particularly relevant to our analysis. He
clearly recognized the ecological threats created in capitalist societies
and the social challenges that accompany these threats:
The rapid growth processes of advanced-capitalist societies have
confronted world society with . . . disturbance to ecological
balance, violation of the consistency requirements of the personality
system (alienation), and potentially explosive strains on
international relations. With growing complexity, the system of
world society shifts its boundaries so far into its environment
that it runs up against limits of outer as well as inner nature.
Ecological balance designates an absolute limit to growth. The
less palpable anthropological balance designates another limit,
which can be overstepped only at the price of altering the
socio-cultural identity of social systems. (1975:41)
Habermas has written extensively on the process by which social systems
are legitimized and the factors that lead to legitimation crises, wherein
the public comes to reject ideological justifications for the prevailing
social system.
Although the work of Habermas is generally aimed at a grand
scale—understanding how entire social-political-economic systems, such
as capitalism, operate—rather than the specifics of how particular corporations
or industries work to retain their privilege, the theoretical concepts
Habermas developed prove relevant at a smaller scale as well. The
decline in the number of jobs provided by extractive industries can be
seen as a factor potentially leading to a legitimation crisis for these
industries, since it can lead the public to question the propriety of industry
management of natural resources. Thus, industry works to avoid this crisis
by furthering its efforts at legitimation. The argument that we develop
below is that owners and managers of extractive industries actively construct,
maintain, and amplify community economic identity in order to
ensure that certain ideologies dominate in communities that historically
depended on natural-resource extraction, thereby averting a legitimation
crisis. Maintaining and reinforcing community economic identity is critical
to avoiding a legitimation crisis, for, as Habermas argued, “traditions
can retain legitimizing force only as long as they are not torn out of
interpretive systems that guarantee continuity and identity” (Habermas
Industry efforts at legitimation via ideology manipulation can be
understood as part of what Habermas (1984, 1987) has identified as the
colonization of the “lifeworld” (the realm of everyday, lived experience
where people find meaning from culturally grounded traditions of interpretation).
Habermas observed that in modern societies, particularly
capitalist ones, the lifeworld is increasingly invaded by the overarching
social system. For example, the marketing industry aims to define what
our goals in life should be (consumption—our life’s purpose becomes to
accumulate mass-produced goods, and people come to see themselves as
“consumers”), and the state aims to define key features of our identity
(nationalism/patriotism—people come to identify as, for example,
Americans, rather than as community members, human beings, etc.).
The efforts of extractive industries to lure the public into identifying
with industry are part of this same process, where logging and mining,
for example, come to be seen not simply as sources of employment but
rather as key features of individuals’ and communities’ identities—that
is, workers often come to identify first and foremost as loggers or miners,
and communities come to identify as logging or mining communities.
Here, we focus on the coal industry in West Virginia to explore the
process of legitimation via ideology construction and cultural manipulation.
However, it is important to note that there are a number of other
examples of industry ideology construction aimed at securing for extractive
industries inordinate political influence despite their meager contribution
to regional or national economies. It is noteworthy, for example,
that many rural communities throughout the United States, and the
Pacific Northwest in particular, identify with the timber industry, despite
the fact that few people are now dependent on this industry for employment.
In addition, the valorization of the “cowboy” and rancher in U.S.
culture is another striking example of identities constructed around an
industry that is of little importance in the modern economy and contributes
to a vast array of environmental problems, including water pollution,
biodiversity loss, and land degradation (Wuerthner and Matteson 2002).
Although not as prone to mechanization as other extractive industries,
livestock grazing provides few jobs to rural economies, and most of the
access to rangeland is controlled by a few large-scale operations, not
family ranchers. The U.S. Department of the Interior (1994) estimated
that the elimination of all public-lands livestock grazing would result in
the loss of only about 18,000 jobs across the entire West, about 0.1 percent
of total employment. In light of the fact that these jobs are also dependent
on substantial subsidies from the federal taxpayer (Moskowitz and
Romaniello 2002), from the perspective of society as a whole, the economic
rationality of public-lands grazing is highly suspect, and its continuation
appears to have more to do with the political power of the
livestock industry, stemming in part from industry ideology, than the
health of rural economies. Thus, it appears that it is far from uncommon
for communities to identify with industries that do not do much to
support local and regional economies. In the remainder of this article, we
focus on the coal industry in West Virginia to further explore the ways in
which community economic identities are actively constructed, maintained,
and amplified to the benefit of extractive industries, and, in many
cases, to the detriment of rural communities.
The Historical Roots of Dependency
As the second-leading coal producer in the United States (behind
Wyoming), and the top coal-producing state in Appalachia, West Virginia’s
historical ties with the coal industry have strongly influenced the
economic, political, and social structures of the state. While American
capitalists knew of the rich mineral and timber resources held within the
Appalachian Mountains as early as 1740, it was not until the post–Civil
War years, and the birth of the American industrial revolution, that
interest in the coal and iron deposits of the Appalachians brought large
numbers of speculators into the region (Eller 1982). In the late 1800s,
eager entrepreneurs from outside Appalachia poured into the hills,
procuring millions of acres of land and mineral rights at exceptionally
low prices. Local residents, most of whom had been subsistence farmers
until that point (Haynes 1997), had no idea of the value of the minerals
beneath their land. Many are reported to have “ ‘voluntarily’ sold [their]
land for 50 cents or one dollar an acre” (Gaventa 1978:144), while still
others were duped into different types of unfair exchanges. For instance,
an entire mountain, which in the late 1970s supplied Georgia Power 1
million tons of coal annually, was reported to have been traded to a
company agent for a hog rifle (Gaventa 1978:144). Others who refused
to sell their land became victims of legal traps, such as being jailed and
then offered bond in exchange for their land (Gaventa 1978).
Numerous scholars have referred to Central Appalachia as an “internal
colony” (Gaventa 1978; Lewis and Knipe 1978; Weller 1978) or an
“internal periphery” (Walls 1978) created to provide cheap resources to
fuel the rest of the country. Both of these models point to outside
interests’ exploitation of the resources of Central Appalachia through
the subjugation and domination of its people. Part of this continued
domination has been achieved through corporate ownership of the
majority of the land,3 effectively blocking other industries from entering
the region in an attempt to maintain this part of Appalachia as a monoeconomy.
As Lewis and Knipe (1978) assert, “it is advantageous for coal
mining to operate in isolation without competing companies” because
the extraction process is tied to a particular location and the work is
hazardous and strenuous (19).
A cheap workforce was the foundation of early mining, and it was
essential for the coal barons to remove the Appalachian people from
their land in order to “turn them into a docile workforce” (Haynes
1997:49). Another method to ensure a cheap—and captive—workforce
was the establishment of company towns. In the late 1800s and early
3 The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force’s (1983) study of land ownership patterns
in 80 counties in Central and southern Appalachia found that 72 percent of the 13
million acres of surface land in the study were owned by absentee owners, and of the top
50 private owners, 46 were corporations. This pattern is even more dramatic in the highest
coal-producing regions of Appalachia: four of the five counties with the most corporately
held land are in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and in those counties nearly
90 percent of the land is owned by corporations.
1900s, men were recruited into the state by the tens of thousands to work
in the booming mining industry. The population skyrocketed during
this period, and hundreds of company towns and coal camps, which were
completely owned and controlled by the coal companies, sprang up
throughout Central Appalachia. In these towns, the coal companies
owned the houses, the streets, the schools, the water systems, the
churches, the recreational facilities (if there were any), the doctor’s
office, and the company store, which was the only store in the town
where one could buy groceries, furniture, clothes, and other goods. In
addition, most coal companies paid their employees in “scrip,” their own
monetary system redeemable only within that particular company’s town
(Lockard 1998). The use of scrip ensured that the miners and their
families were unable to travel outside the town to buy fundamental
supplies and that the company store was able to charge monopolistic
prices for its goods. The company store system and the other companysupplied
services for which miners were charged, such as tool sharpening,
health care, and housing rent, were “a key mechanism . . . for
increasing company profits” (Cook 2000:192).
Also integral to maximizing profits was reinforcing the traditional
gender ideology regarding the “appropriate” roles for men and women
in society, that is, men as the breadwinners and women as the caretakers
of the home. These social norms, not at all unique to Appalachia, have
historically forced households in capitalist economies to subsidize production
through the unpaid work of women, allowing businesses to pay
laborers wages that fall far below the cost of reproducing the household
(Dunaway 2001). Through their unpaid cooking, cleaning, washing,
child care, and other duties of domestic work, women have made it
possible for capitalism to remain profitable, for, as Dunaway (2001)
asserts, “If capitalists compensated women for all their externalized costs
and unpaid labor, prices would be driven up so high that most commodities
would not be competitive in the world economy” (22). Coal
towns in Central Appalachia were constructed to exploit and reinforce
this gender ideology by placing men in the mines and women in the
close-by homes. By intentionally “equating masculinity with a willingness
to work in dangerous conditions,” and femininity with “domestic labor
inside coal camps,” the coal industry was able to keep the costs of labor
and worksite maintenance low (Maggard 1994:30, 18). This gender ideology
has not only had implications for who does what work, it has also
meant that men are favored as the center of community, work, and
politics in Central Appalachia.
Since the 1980s, however, there has been a shift in the Appalachian
coalfields’ economy, threatening the coal industry’s stranglehold on the
region. During the 1980s, the Appalachian coalfields saw a diversification
in the region’s economy, wherein service sector jobs replaced
mining jobs as the leading source of employment and earnings
(Maggard 1994; Miewald and McCann 2004). Increased mechanization
in the coal mines and the advent of mountaintop removal coal mining
have drastically reduced the number of mining jobs throughout Central
Appalachia, and West Virginia in particular (Burns 2005). As mining
jobs have continued to drop off, service-sector jobs have risen, calling
into question the coal industry’s status as the “backbone” of the state.
Coal and the West Virginia Economy
The $3.5 billion coal contributed to West Virginia’s gross state product in
2004 represented only 7 percent of the total gross state product, ranking
behind retail trade ($4.0 billion), real estate and rentals ($4.6 billion),
health care and social assistance ($4.8 billion), and government ($8.4
billion) (U.S. Department of Commerce 2005). Furthermore, mining’s
contributions to the West Virginia state product declined from the late
1990s into the 2000s (Witt and Fletcher 2005), and its contributions are
forecast to continue declining over the next thirty years (Witt and
Leguizamon 2007). The tax revenue generated from coal severance tax
represents less than 7 percent of the General Revenue Fund for the state
(whereas personal income tax represents 37 percent) (State of West
Virginia 2007), and the West Virginia Executive Budget forecasts a 9
percent decline in severance tax revenues by 2010 (State of West Virginia
2007:70). Very little of this coal severance tax actually goes to the coalfield
towns, which must bear the brunt of the numerous social, economic, and
environmental injustices related to coal-mining practices. The town of
Sylvester, for instance, which sits next to the enormous Elk Run Coal
Preparation Plant and a mountaintop removal coal mine and beneath an
enormous slurry impoundment with the capacity to hold 769 million
gallons of coal waste, received only $701.42 in coal severance tax during
the 2006–2007 fiscal year (West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office 2007).
As Figure 1 shows, coal employment in West Virginia has steadily
declined since the 1940s. This reduction in mining jobs has caused a
massive exodus from the state: Since 1950, West Virginia has experienced
a net out-migration of 40 percent of its population (West Virginia Health
Statistics Center 2002).4 In 1948 there were 131,700 coal miners in the
state, while in 2006 there were only 20,100. This represents a more than
five-fold reduction in the number of jobs even after controlling for the
4 However, West Virginia’s population declined by only about 10 percent over this
period due to natural increase.
decline in the population. Even if we incorporate contract workers (such
as coal-truck drivers) into the employment data, which would increase the
total coal employment to 40,924 individuals, coal industry employment in
West Virginia still only accounted for 5 percent of the total employed
civilian labor force in 2005. Health care, hospitality services, retail trade,
professional and business services, and local, state, and federal government
were each far more significant employers within the state than coal
(West Virginia Bureau of Employment Programs 2005).
The decline in mining jobs since the mid-twentieth century was not
because of a decline in the scale of coal production, since, although it
swung up and down over this period, coal production was about the
same at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in the late
1940s (see Figure 1). Job losses were clearly due to the ongoing processes
of the treadmill of production where workers are replaced by machines.
Changes in coal-extraction practices meant that the same amount of coal
could be extracted in the twenty-first century by employing only onesixth
the workers required in the mid-twentieth century. Coal was a
central part of the building of West Virginia’s economy. However, with
the advent of the continuous mining machine, the longwall mining
machine, and most recently, mountaintop removal mining, a vast workforce
of coal miners is no longer needed.
The periodic reductions in coal production indicated in Figure 1
correlate with a number of important events, particularly the implementation
of various environmental laws in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as
the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, the Federal
Water Pollution Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation
Act. The significant production decline from 1970 to 1978 can
be attributed in part to the much stricter sulfur dioxide emissions standards
for coal-fired power plants, which made Western (e.g., Wyoming)
coal, which is extremely low sulfur, the “most cost effective choice for
meeting sulfur dioxide limits without the installation of expensive equipment
retrofits” (Bonskowski, Watson, and Freme 2006:2). This shift
caused a decrease in the use of Appalachian coal in the 1970s. However,
as Figure 1 shows, this was only a temporary trend; Appalachian coal
production quickly began to rise again to keep up with energy demand
in the United States.
While the periodic declines in production described above have
undoubtedly had some effects on employment, the primary driving force
behind job losses has been technological changes in mining practices
(Burns 2005). This is evidenced in the trend seen throughout the 1980s
and into the early 1990s, when jobs continued to decline despite sharp
increases in coal production (see Figure 1). This increase in output can
be traced to technological advances in longwall mining, which became
one of the principal methods of underground coal extraction during
this time period (Energy Information Administration 1995:1).
As discussed above, treadmill of production theory posits that
increases in productivity will typically lead to escalating ecological degradation.
The Appalachian coal case is no exception. Technological
advances in the methods of coal extraction and processing have had
growing impacts on the health, safety, and livelihoods of people living in
the coalfields. Below we briefly describe some of the most serious environmental
consequences of coal mining so as to clarify the reasons that
resistance to the coal industry has emerged and, consequently, industry
efforts to further the ideology of the coal industry have intensified.
Environmental Consequences of Coal Mining
Mountaintop removal coal mining and the resulting valley fills have
spurred a great deal of controversy within “coal communities” and the
larger region. This form of coal extraction has become widespread
throughout Central Appalachia, particularly in southern West Virginia
and eastern Kentucky. Under the mountains in these areas lie thin layers
of low-sulfur coal, which are extremely valuable and are too narrow to be
mined by more traditional methods of deep mining. In order to reach
this coal, mining operations must remove the “overburden” (which
includes the tops of mountains, forests, etc.) to expose the coal seam
below. Surplus volume of broken rock, called “excess spoil,” is generated
through this mining technique and must be disposed of. Typically, it is
dumped in valleys that are adjacent to the surface mines, creating “valley
fills” (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2003). According
to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Environmental Impact
Statement: Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fills in Appalachia” (2005),
mountaintop removal mining and/or valley fills directly impacted 1,200
miles of headwater streams between 1992 and 2002. In fact, from 1985 to
2001 valley fills buried an estimated 724 miles of streams in Appalachia.
Among its many consequences, mountaintop removal mining leads to
flooding. In the steep mountain terrain of southern West Virginia, most
homes have been built in the valleys next to creek banks. When the
mountains above these homes are deforested and flattened, there is
nothing left to stop the rain from washing down the mountainsides.
Thus, flooding has destroyed the homes of numerous coalfield residents.
A study conducted by the Flood Advisory Technical Taskforce of the
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (2002) found
that “mining and timbering impacts did influence the study watersheds
by increasing surface water runoff and the resulting stream flows” (71),
increasing the runoff up to 21 percent in some cases, and, thus, contributed
to the massive flooding that southern West Virginia experienced in
Another major environmental problem associated with mining stems
from “coal-sludge dams” (also termed “slurry impoundments”). Before
coal is sent to market for processing, it must be cleaned in order to
reduce sulfur and noncombustible materials present in the coal. The
waste generated by the cleaning process is called coal slurry (or “sludge”)
and consists of “water, fine particles derived from the coal, and chemicals
used in coal washing” (Orem 2006). This black chemical sludge is
either stored in huge impoundments on the surface of flattened mountaintops
or injected into abandoned underground coal mines (Orem
2006). There are currently 111 coal-sludge impoundments in West Virginia
(Coal Impoundment Location and Information System 2005).
Many of these enormous black lakes are situated on mountaintops
directly above small communities.
Sometimes these impoundments leak, and even completely give way.
The 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster was one such instance. Buffalo Creek
Hollow in Logan County, West Virginia, was home to some 5,000 people
and was situated downstream of a coal-sludge impoundment holding back
132 million gallons of coal waste. On the morning of February 26, 1972,
the dam collapsed, releasing a torrent of black sludge water, which tore
through the hollow, taking with it everything in its path. One hundred
twenty-five people died that day, and thousands were left homeless and
forever scarred by the devastation they witnessed (Erikson 1976).
A more recent coal-slurry disaster occurred in 2000 in Martin County,
Kentucky. The impoundment collapsed, spilling 250 million gallons of
coal waste (20 times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill), polluting
more than 70 miles of West Virginia and Kentucky waterways, killing
wildlife, and razing habitat. Homes were destroyed by the thick, black
sludge. Although there was little national media coverage, the EPA
called it “one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the
Southeastern United States” (Eades 2000). Forty-five other slurry
impoundments in West Virginia are considered to be at high risk for
failure, and thirty-two are at moderate risk (Eades 2000).5
5 Slurry impoundments are not limited to the coal preparation process. Coal burned at
coal-fired power plants generates coal fly-ash slurry, which is stored in impoundments. In
December 2008, 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly-ash slurry broke through an impoundment
at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee,
contaminating a branch of the Emory River and approximately 300 acres of the surrounding
land (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2009).
Not all coal waste ends up in sludge impoundments. Instead, some
coal operations inject the slurry underground into abandoned coal
mines. This method of “disposal” creates an entirely new set of problems
including well water contamination and the health problems it can lead
to, such as liver and kidney cancers, colitis, skin disorders, and organ
failure (Orem 2006; Wells 2006).
Jack Spadaro, former superintendent of training for the National
Mine Health and Safety Academy of the Mine Safety and Health Administration
(MSHA), asserts that the type of coal cleaning that generates a
need for coal-sludge impoundments and slurry injections is not necessary,
but that the coal industry uses this method because it “saves a dollar
a ton in processing.” He goes on to reveal:
There are other technologies, such as dry filter press systems.
Coal impoundments are not at all necessary. There’s been technology
around since the 1960s. . . . [I]t would only cost about a
dollar a ton more. . . .
Overall the industry simply doesn’t give a damn about the
people or the environment in this region [of the country]. And
I can say that with authority. (Stockman 2006:6–7)
Flooding and coal-slurry impoundments and injections are only the
beginning of the many ways in which coal adversely affects the environment
and residents of the southern coalfields. Damage from blasting;
respiratory problems from coal dust; accidents caused by overweight,
speeding coal trucks; and the loss of hunting grounds and homesteads
are a few more of the consequences of coal for these rural communities.
Even the laws that are in place to protect the land and people, such as
the Clean Water Act, have been largely ignored by many coal companies,
as evidenced by the fact that coal giant Massey Energy was charged with
4,633 violations of the Clean Water Act between January 2000 and
December 2006 (Associated Press 2007).
The people living in coal-mining regions of Appalachia have found
themselves in a conflicted situation. Most people living in the coalfields
have been dependent, at some point in their lives, on the industry that
is now destroying their homes, health, and safety. While many are
affected by irresponsible mining, until recent years most residents have
remained silent while the coal industry has continued to dominate this
region. However, due to the seriousness of the environmental problems
generated by the coal industry, a grassroots movement has
steadily grown in numbers and power within Central Appalachia over
the past decade. The Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental
Coalition, Citizens Coal Council, Kentuckians for the Com-
monwealth, the Sludge Safety Project, and the newly emerged college
movement Mountain Justice are just a few of the organizations that
have been engaging in forms of resistance and direct action. Staging
nonviolent protests, generating publications, lobbying the legislature,
filing lawsuits, blocking new mining permits, and working with filmmakers
and journalists to expose the devastation coal has caused to the
environment and rural communities are a few of the strategies these
organizations have utilized to hold the coal industry accountable.
Industry Ideology: The Birth of the “Friends of Coal”
According to coal analyst Richard Bonskowski (2004), the grassroots
efforts at resistance described above are in part responsible for the
recent small decline in coal production within West Virginia, as well as
Appalachia as a whole. In particular, efforts relating to litigation and
permitting delays for new mountaintop-removal mines and stricter
enforcement of coal-truck weight limits and license fees have been especially
influential. However, the coal industry has not stood idly by in the
face of these challenges. This became especially apparent in the coal
industry’s strategy to win one of the most contentious legislative debates
in West Virginia in recent years: coal-truck weight limits. Through its
efforts to win this battle, the West Virginia Coal Association constructed
a countermovement to the environmental justice movement, calling the
organization it created the “Friends of Coal,” which has engaged in
elaborate framing efforts to maintain and amplify coal’s status as the
economic identity of West Virginia.
In 2002, in response to a series of recent deaths from accidents
involving overweight coal trucks (some that were more than double the
legal limit), Delegate Mike Caputo (D-Marion) introduced a bill in the
West Virginia legislature to increase enforcement of the truck weight
limits. Coal industry–supporting legislators quickly introduced retaliatory
legislation that would raise maximum legal weight limits for coal
trucks from 80,000 pounds to 132,000 pounds (with a 5 percent variance)
(Nyden 2002). Neither bill passed, but legislative efforts on both
sides continued to stir controversy in the state.
During the summer of 2002, as the coal truck debate was raging,
board members and officers of the West Virginia Coal Association held
a strategic planning meeting to discuss ways that they could improve
public relations (Shanghai Zoom Intelligence Co., Ltd. 2006). The
outcome of that meeting was the birth of the “Friends of Coal,” which
was to be a “grassroots organization” that would be “dedicated to informing
and educating West Virginia citizens about the coal industry and its
vital role in the state’s future” (Friends of Coal 2007). As West Virginia
Coal Association President Bill Raney explained,
For many years . . . we have claimed that coal represents many
more West Virginians beyond the thousands directly employed
by the industry. Friends of Coal clearly indicates that this is the
case. . . . With Friends of Coal, we are making an effort to count,
organize and mobilize these people. It’s time to clearly demonstrate
to public officials, to media representatives and to the
general public, just how many lives are touched in a positive way
by the coal industry. (Shanghai Zoom Intelligence Co., Ltd.
In addition, according to Coal Leader: Coal’s National Newspaper, “One of
the aims of the new organization ‘Friends of Coal’ is to reverse the
perception that coal mining has declined in importance in West Virginia
and the country” (“Friends of Coal” 2003). While the Friends of Coal
boasts that it is a “grassroots organization,” its funding comes from the
member companies of the West Virginia Coal Association (Hohmann
2005). Furthermore, Raney was paraphrased as stating that the campaign
is an effort to “remove ‘impediments’ to coal mining” (Wire
Reports 2002), clearly stating the agenda of the organization.
In January 2003, the West Virginia Coal Association contracted with
the West Virginia–based firm Charles Ryan Associates “to provide public
relations, advertising and internet services for Friends of Coal” (Shanghai
Zoom Intelligence Co., Ltd. 2006). This step proved to be a strategic
one in terms of timing, for it was just before the 2003 West Virginia
legislative session, where the coal-truck issue would be reexamined. As
Bill Reid, managing editor for Coal Leader, asserts, the passage of Senate
Bill 583, which raised the legal coal-truck weight limits, “occurred just a
few short months after the introduction of the West Virginia Coal Association
campaign Friends of Coal.” He goes on to say that “[t]here is no
doubt that Friends of Coal had a significant impact on the passage of the
Coal Truck Bill” (Reid 2003). This was particularly significant, for, as
Reid argues, increasing weight limits would “provide a much needed
boost for the coal industry in southern West Virginia by removing some
of the question marks regarding the future of coal trucking and giving
greater stability to both coal producers and trucking companies” (Reid
The passage of the weight limit increase was only the beginning of the
Friends of Coal, however. Since 2003, the organization has launched a
full-scale campaign within West Virginia to reconnect the people of
the state to an industry that can no longer truly be characterized as the
“lifeblood” of the economy. The focus of our empirical analysis is on the
activities that this organization undertakes and the messages it imparts to
West Virginians. We argue that the underlying strategy of the Friends of
Coal is to attempt to counter the coal industry’s loss of citizens’ employment
loyalties by constructing an ideology of dependency and identity
through a massive public relations campaign.
Data and Methods
In order to uncover the main strategies that the Friends of Coal uses in
its attempt to reconstruct a bond between the coal industry and West
Virginia communities, we use two approaches: content analysis and field
observations. Data for our content analysis were gathered from four
different sources: (1) regional and national newspaper articles during
the period 2002–2007 that mention the Friends of Coal, (2) articles
referencing the Friends of Coal in Coal Leader: Coal’s National Newspaper
during the period 2003–2006, (3) the Friends of Coal website, accessed
once in 2005 and then again in 2007, and (4) the West Virginia Coal
Association Website (the parent organization for the Friends of Coal),
accessed in 2008. We located the regional and national newspaper
articles through the LexisNexis Academic database by entering the
search terms “Friends of Coal” and searching between 2002 and 2007
(2002 was the year of the organization’s inception). The data set from
this source consists of 207 newspaper articles. We found the articles from
Coal Leader: Coal’s National Newspaper on Coal Leader’s Website. Only
issues printed between 2003 and 2006 were available. The data set from
this source consists of four articles about the Friends of Coal. The
Friends of Coal and West Virginia Coal Association Websites, our third
and fourth sources, provided particularly illuminating data: four
60-second television commercials and two 30-second television commercials
promoting the Friends of Coal and the coal industry in general. We
transcribed these commercials and coded both for visual themes and
spoken words. In addition, all of the content posted on the Friends of
Coal Website was included in our analysis.
We undertook the coding process in an inductive manner, first
reading through the documents and then creating (1) a list of actions
that the Friends of Coal has taken since its inception during the summer
of 2002; and (2) a list of themes and messages that it is attempting to impart
to the West Virginia public.
In addition to our content analysis, we utilized observations from the
first author’s field research in southern West Virginia during the
summers of 2006 and 2007. These observations were gathered as a part
of a larger project examining the social impacts of the coal industry on
rural communities and the resistance movement that has risen up to
hold the coal industry accountable for irresponsible mining practices.
Data for this larger project include 20 in-depth interviews with randomly
selected individuals living in a coal town in Boone County, West Virginia
(Bell 2009); 25 interviews with activists involved in the environmental
justice movement in Central Appalachia; and four months’ worth of field
notes spanning two summers, written while engaging in participant
observation as a volunteer with a grassroots environmental justice organization
in Boone County and while living in two different coal towns
during the summers of 2006 and 2007. While we do not explicitly utilize
the interview data here, general knowledge gained from the interviews
and the field observations inform our analysis.
Through the coding process, we found that the Friends of Coal’s main
strategy to reconstruct a bond between the coal industry and West Virginia
communities centers on attempting to present coal mining as the
defining feature of the state. The statement “It is likely that no state and
industry are as closely identified with one another as West Virginia and
coal,” which appeared on the Friends of Coal Website in 2005, imparts
exactly the message this organization hopes West Virginians will come to
believe, despite the coal industry’s declining contribution to employment
in the state. The coal industry works to create (or re-create) and
maintain its standing as the “identity” of West Virginia. Through our
content analysis and field observations, we found that the Friends of Coal
employs two strategies to do this: (1) by appropriating West Virginia
cultural icons; and (2) by creating a visible presence in the social landscape
of West Virginia through stickers, yard signs, and sponsorships.
Strategy 1: The Appropriation of West Virginia Cultural Icons
Even before securing Charles Ryan Associates as their public relations
firm, the Friends of Coal recruited a spokesperson. Don Nehlen,
popular retired football coach of the West Virginia University Mountaineers
and recent inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, quickly
became the face of the Friends of Coal. Nehlen was soon joined by two
other spokespersons: retired Marshall University football coach Bobby
Pruett and, in 2006, professional bass fisherman Jeremy Starks. In addition,
retired air force general “Doc” Foglesong has appeared in at least
one television commercial speaking on behalf of the Friends of Coal.
Each of these spokespersons represents important West Virginia cultural
icons, which also reflect the historic and present hegemonic masculinity
of the region. We define cultural icons as those representations of
cultural or regional identity that resonate with individuals of a particular
area or community.
The winner icon. Coaches Nehlen and Pruett together represent the
two Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1) teams in the state and
thus represent the two sets of football fans that exist in West Virginia: the
Mountaineers fans (West Virginia University) and the Thundering Herd
fans (Marshall University). In a state of only 1.8 million, these two football
teams are important cultural icons. Through securing the two coaches
with the most wins in the history of these two teams, the Friends of Coal
has attempted to appropriate football—and winning—as a part of its
identity. To further this end, in 2006 Friends of Coal became the corporate
sponsor of a seven-year football series, called the “Friends of Coal
Bowl,” which pits the Mountaineers and the Thundering Herd against
each other. This is particularly relevant because, until 2006, the two teams
had played only once since 1923. College football fans in West Virginia
have been waiting for many years for the two in-state rivals to play each
other. After four match-ups, the Friends of Coal Bowl is a raging success in
the state, further solidifying the Friends of Coal as an integral component
of college football in West Virginia.
The Friends of Coal further reinforces this connection between the
coal industry and football through two 30-second television commercials
promoting the Marshall University Thundering Herd and the West Virginia
University Mountaineers. The first commercial begins with a chorus
singing, “When we go down deep through the dark today, we come up
with the light for America.” Next, the narrator announces, “Champions
are born of hard work and determination, and just like the Thundering
Herd, coal miners are a championship team. During this 2008 season, the
Friends of Coal honor our coal miners and our Thundering Herd—all
champions indeed.” Then, the chorus concludes the commercial by
singing, “Coal is West Virginia!”6 The second commercial is similarly
worded, praising coal miners and the West Virginia University Mountaineers
for both being “championship team[s],” making the Friends of
Coal’s message difficult to miss.
The Friends of Coal have also addedNASCARdriver Derek Kiser to this
“winner” icon by becoming his primary corporate sponsor. Kiser now
6 The West Virginia Coal Association Website claims that the song featured in this
television commercial was the coal industry’s theme music 25 years ago. The
chorus—“Coal is West Virginia”—has been made into a cell phone ringtone that is available
for downloading from the Website (West Virginia Coal Association 2008).
drives a race car with the “Friends of Coal” logo prominently placed across
the hood. Thus, through associating itself with the winning football
coaches and the winning NASCAR driver, the Friends of Coal sends the
message that the coal industry is a winner, too.
The provider and defender icon. The provider icon and the defender
icon are closely intertwined within Friends of Coal propaganda. This
becomes particularly apparent in two Friends of Coal television
commercials. In the first of these commercials, called “American Hero,”
retired Air Force General “Doc” Foglesong narrates as images of (male)
coal miners hard at work flash across the screen:
doc: You could say the West Virginia coal miners are modern-day
pioneers. Men and women of courage, pride and adventure, who
safely go where no one’s been before and harvest the coal that powers
our nation. . . . In fact, if these miners didn’t produce coal, our nation
would be in trouble. More than half of the nation’s electricity is
generated by coal.West Virginia is the national leader in underground
coal-mining production, and America needs that energy—today more
than ever. So if you know a West Virginia coal miner, say “Thanks.”
Not that he or she is doing it for the thanks. They’re doing it for their
family and for our future. I’m retired Air Force General Doc Foglesong.
Friends of Coal salute [sic] the pioneering spirit of the West
Virginia coal miner. Why not join us and do the same?
Within the text of this commercial the coal industry becomes synonymous
with the coal miner. Thus, the coal industry is presented as a
provider—both for West Virginia’s families and for the nation’s energy
demands. As Doc states, “America needs that energy—today more than
ever,” and it is the West Virginia coal industry that is to thank for meeting
those energy demands.
The working-class provider icon is a decidedly masculine image.
While Doc calls coal miners “men and women of courage,” not a single
woman can be seen among the 15 coal miners who appear throughout
the short one-minute commercial. This is in line with traditional mainstream
ideologies of “the provider” within the context of American
society and Appalachian coal communities in particular. Beckwith
(2001) argues that the historically male-dominated coal mining workforce
of central Appalachia has created “a context in which ‘miner’ and
‘male’ become conflated, a conflation that is so deeply ingrained that it
is virtually undetectable” (310). In fact, it was not until the late 1970s that
women were granted the right to work in the coal mines. Even this legal
victory was largely empty, however, for once women did eventually
become coal miners, they were the first to be pushed out when
technological changes “shrank the size of the labor force, leaving only
those miners with seniority,” who, of course, were men (Maggard
1999:186). Thus, through reinforcing the hegemonic image of the
working-class provider as male, and a particularly masculine male, the
images in this commercial lubricate the process of the coal industry
becoming synonymous with the family provider.
Underlying this commercial is also the image of the West Virginia coal
industry (as represented through the face of the coal miner) as
“defender” of our country: “If these miners didn’t produce coal, our
nation would be in trouble.” Furthermore, the choice of a retired military
general as the narrator of this commercial is particularly telling of
the messages that the Friends of Coal seeks to present: The coal industry
defends the “American way of life” just as the military does. Thus, coal is
more than an energy source—it is a patriotic energy source!
The “coal industry as defender” trope is also apparent in another
Friends of Coal television commercial called “Tracking the Source.” In
this one-minute piece, the narrator asserts:
Without West Virginia coal, our nation’s economic status as a
leader would be in jeopardy. It may seem like a daunting task to
supply the nation with energy. But clean coal technology continues
to gain momentum, helping us reduce our dependence
on foreign oil and creating jobs for the men and women who
proudly call themselves coal miners.
Thus, according to this commercial, the coal industry is responsible for
defending the United States from economic disaster and foreign conflict
over oil. Again, in this section of the commercial, it is only male coal
miners who are depicted in the images relating to the mining process,
reinforcing mainstream images of a working-class male provider as the
true face of the coal industry. This image works within the historical
gender structure of Appalachia and thus makes this association more
Through appropriating the cultural icon of the provider and
defender as being ultimately represented within the workers of the coal
industry, the Friends of Coal is able to again construct a connection
between the increasingly isolated coal industry and the local communities.
The coal industry’s approach fits with Habermas’s (1975) observation
that efforts at legitimation typically draw on existing cultural
institutions, providing continuity with tradition. The coal industry, in its
development of the provider and defender icon—linking coal to the
military, a symbol of patriotism and strength—is clearly trying to imbed
coal mining in deep cultural traditions. It connects its legitimation
efforts with those of the state, which has long worked to build the
image of the military as a noble institution on which all Americans
The outdoorsman icon. Hunting and fishing are important traditions
to many West Virginians. Many West Virginians pride themselves on
being avid outdoorspeople, a value that often stands in contradiction to
the destructive ecological practices of the coal industry. Mountaintop
removal mining has caused the destruction of vast tracts of land once
used for hunting, digging ginseng root, morel gathering, and collecting
other types of medicinal herbs such as black cohosh, bloodroot, and
mayapple. Many streams in which West Virginians used to swim and the
fish habitat they provided have been buried under valley fills or polluted
with acid mine drainage and coal waste. Thus, the Friends of Coal
needed to address this contradiction to make the coal industry appear to
also value the outdoors, as a large number of West Virginians do. This
they attempted to accomplish by becoming the primary corporate
sponsor of professional bass fisherman Jeremy Starks and by bringing
him on as an official spokesperson for the Friends of Coal in 2006.
Adding even more to his credentials as an “environmentally conscious”
spokesperson for the Friends of Coal is the fact that Starks serves as a
representative on the Bass Angler Sportsman Society’s (BASS)
“conservation team,” which meets with government officials to discuss
conservation issues.
Starks appears in two 60-second Friends of Coal television
commercials, the first alongside Nehlen and Pruett and the second on a
stream bank fishing with five children. In the first commercial, Starks,
Nehlen, and Pruett are fishing from Starks’s 21-foot bass boat, which has
a panoramic photo of West Virginia mountains and the “Friends of Coal”
logo emblazoned across its side. As the three of them fish in a West
Virginia stream, they discuss the West Virginia coal industry:
nehlen: Thousands of tons of coal are mined in this area.
starks: And scientific tests have shown
pruett: That the water is clean, clear, and a strong provider for
wildlife. And the coal mining industry is proud of that.
nehlen: And of their role in making sure that it stays that way.
In his second commercial, Jeremy Starks continues with this theme of
clean streams as images of him standing on a stream bank fishing with
young children alternate with images of the coal mining process:
starks: Hi. I’m Jeremy Starks—a Friend of Coal and a pro fisherman
who’s concerned about the environment. . . . This clear stream is
proof that sustaining water quality is a big part of the reclamation
process. Scientific tests have shown that this water quality is better
now than it’s ever been. And this is after 22 million tons of coal have
been mined in nearby land. Our need for energy is greater than ever.
And with responsible practices in place, we can safely mine coal
while restoring our land for future generations.
From the mouth of self-proclaimed conservationist Jeremy Starks, we
are assured that coal extraction and a clean environment can coexist.7
We are even told that the coal industry actually improves water quality! It
is through this assertion that the Friends of Coal attempts to identify
itself as the quintessential West Virginia “outdoorsman.”
Through appropriating some of the most potent cultural icons of the
region, such as football, the military, race-car driving, the accomplished
outdoorsman, and the working-class provider, the Friends of Coal has
attempted to amplify the connection between West Virginia and coal so
that this industry appears to be more than a provider of jobs; it embodies
all of the characteristics of the archetypal West Virginian.
It is no coincidence that this “archetypal West Virginian” is clearly
constructed to be a man. With the changing economic realities in West
Virginia, wherein coal is no longer the main source of employment or
earnings, the gendered division of labor, and related gender ideology, is
under attack. With the rise in service-sector jobs and decline in mining
employment, women have increasingly entered the workforce, while
greater and greater numbers of men have been forced to leave, threatening
men’s status as the sole breadwinners of the family (Maggard
1994; Miewald and McCann 2004). As Maggard (1994) relates, “The
Appalachian coalfield region is witnessing the disassembling of a nearly
century old economic and domestic arrangement” (31). However, while
the strict gendered division of labor has declined, the related gender
ideology “is still felt” (Miewald and McCann 2004:1054). This disconnect
between ideology and economic reality has meant that many men are no
longer able to live up to their traditional definition of masculinity. In
many cases, this has translated to turmoil at home, including divorce,
depression, domestic violence, and even suicide (Miewald and McCann
2004). Ironically, the very industry that created the hegemonic masculinity
of the region in the first place is also responsible for preventing
most coalfield men from achieving it. Because of this ideological connection
between the male provider and the male coal miner, it is necessary
for the coal industry to convince residents that men are still the
7 This message is one that is being promoted through the coal industry’s “Clean Coal”
campaign, which many argue is nothing more than an advertising scheme to counter coal’s
reputation as a “dirty” fossil fuel.
breadwinners of the family if it is to convince them that coal is still the
backbone of the economy.
Strategy 2: Becoming Pervasively Visible within the Social Landscape
of West Virginia
The second major way in which the Friends of Coal endeavors to become
the identity of West Virginia is through its attempts to be seen virtually
everywhere in the state and penetrate the lifeworld. The organization
accomplishes this in three major ways: (1) distributing hard-hat stickers,
window decals, buttons, yard signs, and ball caps at nearly every major
public event; (2) sponsoring events, community improvement projects,
scholarships, and any other venue that provides an opportunity for the
Friends of Coal logo or name to be in the public’s attention; and (3)
entering the school system through the Coal Education Development
and Resource (CEDAR) Program of southern West Virginia.
The Friends of Coal logo. Reflecting the Friends of Coal’s goal to
pervade the visual landscape with its presence, Warren Hylton, West
Virginia Coal Association board member (quoted in Shanghai Zoom
Intelligence Co., Ltd. 2006), asserted, “This logo will be the visible proof
that there are Friends of Coal all over West Virginia. . . . The more you
see of this symbol, the more you can be sure our message is getting
across.” The Friends of Coal has made concerted efforts to distribute its
stickers, hats, buttons, and yard signs widely throughout West Virginia,
and even into other Appalachian states. Membership as a “Friend of
Coal” is free, and there are no participation requirements. Simply
putting a Friends of Coal decal on the back of one’s pick-up truck is a
contribution to the organization’s goal of painting the landscape with
Friends of Coal logos, providing a strong visual image of solidarity and
“grassroots support” for the coal industry (see Figure 3).
Friends of Coal sponsorships. Connected to the wide distribution of
Friends of Coal logos is the extensive list of events, places, and services
that the Friends of Coal has sponsored in the five years since its
inception. Those we have identified through our data are presented in
Table 1. Friends of Coal’s massive campaign to have its name attached to
everything from soccer fields to auto fairs to the capital city’s Fourth of
July celebration to volleyball games to theater performances is a clear
attempt to broaden its base of support to those individuals who may not
care about football or fishing and who may not come from a
working-class background. Through appearing to sponsor everything
and anything, the Friends of Coal gives the impression that the coal
industry is still acting as the backbone of the state, regardless of whether
it provides many jobs or contributes significantly to public services. Thus,
these diverse sponsorships serve to perpetuate an ideology of
dependency: Without the coal industry, West Virginians would not only
be without jobs, they would also be without sporting events, soccer fields
(see, for example, Figure 4), cultural events, and community centers.
Coal education in the schools. In his study of social cohesion in liberal
democracies, Mann (1970) found that the most common form of
“manipulative socialization” by the state does not attempt to change the
values of the working class, but instead seeks to perpetuate the values that
hinder the working class from interpreting “the reality it actually
experiences” (437). This insight fits with our observation that the coal
industry actively works to maintain and amplify its status as the state’s
economic identity in order to prevent the working class from
recognizing the coal industry’s role in the economic and environmental
degradation of coalfield communities. Furthermore, Mann (1970) cites
studies that reveal the school system’s crucial role in the manipulative
socialization of children, particularly those from working-class families.
In this same way, the coal industry, with the blessing of the state,
endeavors to socialize school children in the southern coalfields to an
“understanding of the many benefits the coal industry provides in daily
lives” through the CEDAR Program, which consists of special
coal-education materials and curricula created by the West Virginia Coal
Association (West Virginia Coal Association 2007).
Teachers in the counties of Boone, Logan, Wyoming, Mingo, and
McDowell (some of the top coal-producing counties in West Virginia) are
offered grant money to create and implement classroom study units on
coal using the CEDAR materials, and the three teachers in each grade
level (K–12) with the best “performance” have the opportunity to win cash
prizes (West Virginia Coal Association 2007). Furthermore, each school
has a principal-appointed “coal fair coordinator,” whose duties are to
organize a coal fair at the school so that each student has the opportunity
to enter a project on coal in one of the following categories: science, math,
English literature, art, music, technology-multimedia, or social studies.
The winners of the local coal fair are invited to enter their projects in a
regional coal fair, where 63 winners in each of the seven categories (first
through third place) in three different age groups receive cash prizes.
Additionally, nine overall age group winners receive cash prizes (West
Virginia Coal Association 2007). Finally, the CEDAR Program offers ten
$1,000 scholarships to students from the five participating coalfield counties
to be used at one of the Southern West Virginia Community and
Technical College campuses (West Virginia Coal Association 2007).
Through their presence in the school systems of many of the top
coal-producing counties in the state, the coal industry attempts to
manipulate the loyalties of citizens as young as five. As quoted in an article
in Coal Leader: Coal’s National Newspaper, “CEDAR is working toward
securing coal’s future TODAY by educating our leaders of TOMORROW!”
(“CEDAR of Southern West Virginia” 2005). By engaging students
and teachers in coal-education units, encouraging participation in coal
fairs, and offering college scholarships, the coal industry is working to
ensure that the future citizenry of southern West Virginia is socialized to
believe that coal is indispensable to the life, culture, and economic future
of their communities and state.
The drive for profit accumulation is a defining feature of capitalism and
is central to the treadmill of production. This drive has always generated
a fundamental tension, however, because activities that increase profits
also frequently degrade the environment and undermine social wellbeing.
These circumstances create legitimation problems for the owners
of the means of production. The machinations of the treadmill have
been particularly apparent in regions that historically depended on
extractive industries, such as mining and timber, as the mainstay of their
economies. In an effort to increase profits, industries in the post–World
War II era accelerated the mechanization of production, leading to the
dual consequences of displacing workers and increasing environmental
degradation. In the aftermath of these transformations in production
practices, many rural communities were left with polluted environments
and high unemployment due to a decline in industry jobs. The social
and environmental costs of production led to the public’s growing opposition
to industry’s often unrestrained access to natural resources. This
rising tide of protest, challenging the power of industry, has increasingly
led to industry backlash, where extractive industries struggle to cling to
their power, despite their declining contribution to the economy and
Our aim here has been to address a lacuna in the treadmill of production
theory by incorporating theoretical concepts from the neo-
Marxian tradition on the legitimation process so as to further our
understanding of how industry gains compliance from substantial segments
of the public. One of the ways that industry maintains its power is
to actively construct ideology that furthers its interests—an observation
made by Marx, but developed further by a line of critical scholars,
including Lukács, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas. Here,
we examined a manifestation of this in “postindustrial” America. The
changes in coal production in West Virginia illustrate how industry works
to maintain community loyalty when it no longer serves as a major source
of employment. When the number of jobs it provided declined due to
changing mining practices, the coal industry faced a legitimation crisis
that challenged its hold on political power. The industry response to this
challenge has been to engage in cultural manipulation, attempting to
construct a pro-coal ideology that shapes community economic identity.
Key strategies for furthering this process center on the appropriation of
West Virginia cultural icons and the infusion of coal-industry ideology
into a variety of social arenas. The intended effect of these efforts has
been to (re)construct the identity of West Virginia as both economically
dependent on coal and culturally defined by coal, the latter being part of
what Habermas identified as the colonization of the lifeworld. The West
Virginia case illustrates processes that likely occur elsewhere in the
nation, such as in the historically timber-dependent communities in the
Pacific Northwest. Analyses of ideology construction by the economic
elite may, therefore, help shed light on a variety of social and economic
processes occurring throughout the United States and around the world.
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