WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — If a single moment captured coal country’s despair this year, it was when Bo Copley, a soft-spoken, out-of-work mine maintenance planner, fought tears as he asked Hillary Clinton how, having dismissed coal’s future in language that came back to haunt her, she could “come in here and tell us you’re going to be our friend.”
That was in May. Copley, 39 and a registered Republican, was “very uncomfortable” with Donald Trump then. But over time, in a paradox of the Bible Belt, this deeply religious father of three put his faith in a trash-talking, thrice-married Manhattan real estate mogul as a savior for coal country — and America.
“God has used unjust people to do his will,” Copley said, explaining his vote.
Now coal country is reckoning with an inconvenient truth: Trump’s expansive campaign promise to “put our miners back to work” will be very difficult to keep. Yet with America so divided over the election that some families barely made it through Thanksgiving — and with Trump backtracking on his declaration that global warming is an “expensive hoax” — Appalachians are eyeing Washington with a feeling they have not had in years: hope.
In his postelection message to the nation, Trump promised to create “many millions of high-paying jobs” in energy, including coal. But utility companies have drastically reduced their reliance on coal, in part because of President Barack Obama’s aggressive regulations to cut emissions that cause global warming, but also because natural gas is cheaper. Nationally, about 300 coal-fired power plants have closed since 2008, according to the National Mining Association, an industry group.
So even if Trump undoes Obama’s policies, many of those plants — including one in nearby Louisa, Kentucky, where a giant cooling tower was recently demolished after the plant converted from coal to natural gas — are not coming back. Analysts agree that what Appalachia really needs is a diversified economy, a goal that has eluded Obama and state and local politicians.
But in this land of staggering beauty and economic pain, Trump backers said over and over again that while coal might never be what it once was, the businessman they helped send to the White House could indeed put them back to work — if not in mining, then in some other industry.
“I don’t think he can ever fulfill all the promises he made even in four or eight years,” Danny Maynard, 59, said after a Bible study at the Chattaroy Missionary Baptist Church. Maynard lost his job at a coal company last year. “But I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “He wants to make America great again.”
Trump pummeled Clinton in coal country. Here in West Virginia, he won every county and took 69 percent of the vote, a landslide also fueled by his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who would roll back abortion rights. As Copley put it, “Coal is secondary to me.”
It is difficult for outsiders to fathom how deeply faith and work are intertwined here, or the economic and psychological depression that sets in when an entire region loses the only livelihood many of its people have ever known. Coal has always been boom and bust; its decline began long before Obama took office. But in West Virginia alone, 12,000 coal industry jobs have been lost during his tenure.
People in Appalachia are tired: tired of seeing their loved ones, and especially their children, leave for work in other states; tired of being viewed as ignorant hillbillies by well-to-do urbanites who do not recognize that when a family has been somewhere for generations, it is not so easy to pack up and leave; tired of feeling tired.
At the Huddle House on Route 119, Kayla Burger, 32, a waitress, has worked three jobs since her husband lost his; they take home less than a quarter of the roughly $100,000 he used to earn. She took an offer for miners’ wives to train as phlebotomists, but with so many miners out of work, the phlebotomy market was flooded. She also substitute teaches and cooks at the school.
They have given up cellphones and sold their boat; one car has been repossessed; the only reason they still have their house, she said, was because they saw layoffs coming and saved money. Her husband, who cares for the children, has experienced depression. “He doesn’t feel like a man,” Burger said. Her father was a miner, too; he and her mother drive tractor-trailers now.
Here in Williamson — population roughly 3,100, down from 4,300 two decades ago — everyone has a story.
The city used to market itself as “the heart of the billion-dollar coal fields,” but it now wraps its tourism pitches around the Hatfield-McCoy trails that run through the nearby mountains. (“We’re the 50-cent coal fields,” said Natalie Taylor, executive director of the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce.) Williamson’s downtown, on the border with eastern Kentucky, sits between the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks.
At the newly opened pulmonary clinic here for patients with black lung disease, Patricia Sigmon, a respiratory therapist, has been caught in the trickle-down. With coal paying less in severance tax to the state, there is less funding for schools. Her husband, a school bus driver in nearby Boone County, was forced to take a $4,000 cut in pay.
Larry Gannon, 61, retired early from his job as a coal processing plant foreman so that a younger man could keep his. Copley’s wife, Lauren, has a photography business, which is how they make do. They used to have “Cadillac” health coverage; now they have Medicaid.
So when scientists and Democrats like Al Gore warn that Trump will endanger the planet, people hear that as something off in the future; feeding your family is here and now. And while there may be “some connectivity” between humans and global warming, as Trump conceded in an interview with The New York Times, people here say Mother Nature will also have her way; many remember how Williamson was wiped out in the Great Flood of 1977, when the river overflowed, submerging downtown.
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“When I was growing up, they said we were in an ice age,” said Kyle Lovern, the managing editor of The Williamson Daily News. He voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump this year.
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in West Virginia, where anger at politicians has been building for years. Copley remembers the Democrats who held power here — men like Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who died in 2010 and whose name is on buildings and roads built with the tax dollars he brought home — and wonders why they did not see the coal bust coming and work to diversify the economy.
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“We’re a forgotten people,” Taylor said, explaining why it did not take much for Trump to win coal country’s trust. “He mentions West Virginia, he mentions the coal workers, and that was pretty much all he had to do to seal this deal.”