Hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources

“I reckon that there is the past, and this here is the future.” – Wilburn, Coalfield Development Crew Member

The following is a testimony by Brandon Dennison, Founder and CEO of Coalfield Development at the Hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Investing in the economic revitalization of the communities that have been extraction-based, that have sacrificed the most to fuel this country, must be front and center in the shaping of policy addressing climate change. Doing so much not to be an afterthought.

As I think about this issue, I think about Wilburn. Wilburn is an on-the-job trainee with Coalfield Development. Wilburn worked for 17 years as a coal miner in Mingo County, WV. Like so many other coal miners, Wilburn was laid off in 2015 and had to go on public assistance (something he says he hated having to do, but had to do to feed his family).

Coalfield Development put Wilburn back to work through a sustainable agriculture business we incubated, which converted a former mountaintop removal mine into an active farm to sell fresh food products. Wilburn and his fellow crew members work by our 33-6-3 model each week: 33 hours of paid work, 6 hours of higher education, and 3 hours of life-skills development.

At the end of their 2.5 year contract, crew members transition from being unemployed and in need of public assistance, to trained workers with an Associate’s Degree. We’ve used this model to start new businesses in the bio-based manufacturing, solar, construction, arts and culture, and retail sectors. We have helped start over 50 new businesses and re-trained over 800 formerly unemployed people.

The farm where Wilburn worked sits next to an active mountaintop removal mine. As we fed hogs and chickens each morning, equipment the size of buildings moved massive amounts of dirt (called over-burden) off of high, steep ledges. Dust clouds ballooned up into the sky. One morning as he worked, without meaning to be profound, Wilburn watched as this over-burden tumbled down. He then looked over at new crops growing up on our site and said, “I reckon that there is the past, and this here is the future.”

The coal industry will never again be the dominant industry it once was. This fact creates deep pain for those of us living in Appalachia, especially for our miners. The transition away from coal (which is already happening) isn’t just creating an economic crisis. It’s creating a social crisis, leading to an addiction epidemic. And it’s creating an environmental crisis, as closed coal mines leave scarred and polluted landscapes in their wake.

But the fact that coal isn’t coming back doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean Appalachia has no future. In fact, the void left by coal’s collapse has made room for new sprouts of entrepreneurship. And Appalachia can be a vital contributor in the fight against climate change. With smart federal policy and investment, our country can accelerate these new sprouts. I recommend this Congress:

  • Create a national just transition task force, including grassroots community leaders and for-profit innovators.
  • Create a national program to support coal communities in transition, building off the POWER program.
  • Pass federal legislation that improves the conditions of former coal workers and distressed Appalachian communities, including the RECLAIM Act and increased support for the Appalachian Regional Commission.

If we don’t pay attention to the economic hurt of extraction communities—and invest in solutions that show there’s a viable economic path forward beyond coal—we’ll only deepen the division in our country. We in Appalachia need to know we are valued. The country needs to know we have more to offer than just coal.

Too often, when discussing economic transitions, policy-makers announce: “well, we can just retrain those people.” The reality is this is so much easier said than done. There are thousands of laid-off miners who got certified in new trades, but it doesn’t matter because there are not many businesses outside the coal industry and therefore not many jobs to be entered with that new certification.

This is exactly why we at Coalfield have had to collaborate with the private sector to create new businesses at the same time as we’re creating a modern workforce to staff those businesses.

Wilburn is one of thousands of former miners whose life was rocked by the shut down of his mine. But at age 45, he’s about to become a college graduate. He’s helping us start a sustainable agriculture business called Refresh Appalachia. Wilburn has transformed a moment of crisis in his life in to a transformational opportunity. With your support, an entire region can do the same.

To view the full Written Testimony by Brandon Dennison, click the link below.


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