Coal Stories 1 : Embedded The "war on coal." Getting Appalachia wrong. Which side are you on? What it's like to live a decline.
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Coal Stories 1


Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers.


And I'm Chris Benderev.


OK. So it's January 2008. Barack Obama is running for president, and he meets the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle. It's pretty amazing to go back in time and hear professorial Obama.


BARACK OBAMA: Third point - and this will be the - I have actually four.

MCEVERS: Talking about how he can bring people together, repair America's reputation overseas.

BENDEREV: And then he gets asked why he introduced a bill that would encourage more coal production when he also believes that the U.S. should reduce greenhouse gases.


OBAMA: I think clean air is critical and global warming is critical, but this notion of no coal, I think, is an illusion.

BENDEREV: So he's not threatening to ban coal or anything.

MCEVERS: But then he talks about this plan where electricity plants that burn coal would have to pay fines if they don't reduce certain emissions.


OBAMA: So if somebody wants to build a coal power plant, they can. It's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted.

MCEVERS: So yeah, the future is not going to be easy for coal-fired power plants. But Obama's like, we can't just do away with coal altogether.

BENDEREV: The San Francisco Chronicle interview, honestly, it does not get much attention until about 10 months later in early November when a right-wing news website called NewsBusters finds the interview and really focuses on this idea of bankrupting coal plants.

MCEVERS: Imagine, the website writes, if John McCain had whispered somewhere that he was willing to bankrupt a major industry - it goes on, this audio interview has been hidden from the public until now.

BENDEREV: But this interview was not hidden. The San Francisco Chronicle put it up on their website the day after it happened.

MCEVERS: Still, the Drudge Report picks up the story. Then Sarah Palin picks it up. She's running for vice president with John McCain. She's out campaigning, and she takes this bankruptcy line and runs with it.


SARAH PALIN: And he said that, sure, if the industry wants to build new coal-fired power plants, then they can go ahead and try, he says. But they can do it only in a way that will bankrupt the coal industry. And he's comfortable letting that happen. And you've got to listen to the tape.


BENDEREV: Two days after Palin says this, Obama wins the election. The headlines are all about breaking racial barriers. But some people do not forget the coal stuff. And this is when the phrase war on coal starts to pop up - and it keeps popping up.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: President Obama's war on coal...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The war on coal, I believe, is real.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Declaring a war on coal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We will stop the Obama war on coal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I mean, the president of the United States has declared a war on coal and a war on jobs and essentially a war on West Virginia.


MCEVERS: But was there a war on coal? Kind of, just wasn't Obama who started it. It was actually a few things. First, the Sierra Club. Starting back during the George W. Bush administration, in cities and towns around the country, activists and lawyers went before local boards and councils and blocked permits for coal-fired power plants, arguing the air quality around these plants was bad for people's health.

MARY ANNE HITT: Over 10 years, that network of activists stopped 194 new coal plants from being built in the United States.

MCEVERS: Mary Anne Hitt is one of those activists from coal country who now heads the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign - 194 plants was about a third of the plants in the U.S.

BENDEREV: And the second thing is this - natural gas. Fracking allows access to huge reserves of natural gas, and it becomes way cheaper to make electricity with natural gas than with coal.

MCEVERS: So by 2012, the coal market tanks. Coal prices go way down. Companies go bankrupt. Twenty-thousand people eventually lose their jobs. And then, the third thing - late in the Obama administration, in 2015, the EPA passes a rule that limits emissions from coal-fired power plants. And more of these plants close or switch to natural gas.

BENDEREV: So yeah, after all these things, by 2016 - the presidential campaign - the coal industry is at its lowest point in decades. A lot of people are blaming Obama and the Democrats and the so-called war on coal. And then this happens.



BENDEREV: At a CNN town hall in Ohio, Hillary Clinton gets asked, what do you have to offer to poor white voters? And her answer, it comes to be known as one of the biggest mistakes of her campaign. She later writes an entire chapter about it in her book about the election.


CLINTON: So, for example, I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key into coal country because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business. Right, Tim?

MCEVERS: She's talking to Congressman Tim Ryan, who's a Democrat from Ohio. And she's just said we're going to put coal miners out of business. But then she goes on to talk about how she actually wants to help people in coal country.


CLINTON: And we're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we've got to move away from coal, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.

MCEVERS: So she's saying all this, but what's the only thing that people here?


CLINTON: We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.

BENDEREV: A few months later, Donald Trump comes to coal country...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much.

BENDEREV: ...And gets a big endorsement from the industry in West Virginia.


TRUMP: See, I come here. I get an award. It's probably a hard hat. So let's see if it's a hard hat. It's a hard hat. I've got to put it on, right?

BENDEREV: He pretends he's shoveling. The crowd loves it.


TRUMP: And for those miners, get ready because you're going to be working your asses off, all right? Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you.


MCEVERS: Donald Trump suddenly becomes the guy who's going to end this war on coal. Around coal country, you start seeing signs that say Trump digs coal.


MCEVERS: But do the miners end up working their asses off? Like, can Trump keep his promise? Those are the questions we're going to ask over our next few episodes because the people in coal country were important in the election, and they're going to be important in the next elections. Like it or not, whether Republicans or Democrats can connect to them matters to who ends up running this country.


MCEVERS: OK. We are back. And yes, we are about to spend a bunch of time in coal country - and by coal country, I mean the coal counties of central Appalachia. And we're going to talk about Trump and the so-called war on coal. Before we do that, though, I feel like I need to talk about how this region has a long history of outsiders coming in and getting it wrong.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. There's even a book that's out right now called "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia." It's by this historian named Elizabeth Catte. And she says for people like Chris and me to go to coal country as a way to explain Donald Trump isn't totally fair to the people of coal country. Like, the stereotype that everyone in central Appalachia is an angry white Trump supporter is wrong.

This region has a long history of progressive politics, of miners and their families during the so-called mine wars taking up arms against coal companies who were trying to keep them from unionizing, of women and immigrants and African-Americans working as miners themselves and organizing strikes. She says getting Appalachia wrong goes way back. One really bad time was the '60s. That's when people from other parts of the country came and portrayed people in coal country in this really one-dimensional way as poor people with no education, no money, no agency, no power.


MCEVERS: In 1962, this local lawyer writes a book called "Night Comes To The Cumberlands: A Biography Of A Depressed Area." This is him in a BBC documentary.


HARRY CAUDILL: This coal train is symbolic of much of the dilemma of Appalachia. Millions - hundreds of millions - even billions of dollars worth of coal have gone out of these valleys, Appalachia's most valuable single resource.

MCEVERS: The book was the foundation for a different war - the war on poverty. That was a huge federal program that under Lyndon Johnson pumped billions of dollars into Appalachia. Donations of clothes and shoes and even cabbages came to the region, volunteers came to pick up trash and register people to vote, and reporters came to take what came to be known as the poverty tour.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Only recently has America woken up to the shock that the American dream had become a nightmare for many people.

MCEVERS: In 1967, a Canadian filmmaker asks a coal miner if he can take his picture. The miner's sitting on the porch of his rundown wooden shack rocking a baby. The miner says yes. Then the owner of the property comes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It all happened awfully fast. A man drives up, opens the door of a car, takes a few steps, screams at us, shoots a gun off...

MCEVERS: And kills the camerman. That was his colleague who was there. All this is from a film about the killing called "Stranger With A Camera." And a lot of people end up taking the killer's side. He's sentenced to 10 years but ends up getting out on parole after one year. Here's how one man talks to reporters around the same time.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You don't need to come in here to impress us with boobs and fuzzy faces. No, my friend.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: You're wrong, white boy. You're going to get in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You're in the wrong damn place, believe you me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: You better be leaving.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You come to us like human beings and we'll treat you like a human being. You come to us like a damn bunch of beatniks and we'll treat you like beatniks.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: My friend, you better believe it. You're treading on damn dangerous ground.

MCEVERS: It was the '60s, and you could already see some of the divisions you see now. People in coal country Appalachia didn't want outsiders coming in and trying to tell them how to live a better life. They were organizing on their own just fine.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Singing) Which side are you? Which side are you on?

MCEVERS: One of the best documentaries ever is about all of this, it's called "Harlan County, USA." It came out in 1976, and it follows the coal miners and the women of the county during this intense strike in eastern Kentucky.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I'm not after a man. I'm after a contract. I'm raising two boys.


MCEVERS: In the end, the miners got that contract which included higher pay and the right to strike. When the coal economy was strong, the miners had power. Over time, though, coal mining got more mechanized. The coal market went through big slumps. The United Mine Workers of America lost members. And coal miners lost their main source of collective power. Then the coal companies worked hard to change the narrative. They're not the enemy. They're the good guys.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Support West Virginia coal miners. Coal keeps the lights on. Become a friend of coal today.

MCEVERS: They call it Friends of Coal. It's a membership organization that was established by the coal companies and that has lobbying groups in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky to pass pro-industry laws.



MCEVERS: And at some point, the answer to which side are you on changed. Instead of the people versus the coal companies it was the coal companies saying to the people, we're with you. And with you, we stand against the environmentalists and the government, those outsiders who are trying to come in and take away your jobs. This is also how we get the idea of the war on coal, and it's how we get more mistrust of outsiders.


MCEVERS: All right. We're back again. And by this point, we know that reporting on this region is fraught. We actually started working on these stories right before the election when a lot of people still thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. I kept reading about what one writer called downwardly mobile white Americans, these voters who were connecting with Trump but not connecting with Clinton.

But a lot of the coverage of people in coal country has been about pointing fingers. Like, why do you want this industry to come back when all the experts say it's never going to come back? What we wanted to know is, what's it like to think that there's a war going on against you, a war on coal? How's that feel?

So it is two days before the election, November 6, 2016.

BENDEREV: And we go to this potluck and cake raffle that the local Republican Party is having at a school in one of those coal counties in central Appalachia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: The reason we're having a hard time putting dinner on the table in south West Virginia is because of the EPA and other people up in Washington, D.C.

BENDEREV: Buchanan County, Va., which is a place we end up spending a lot of time.

MCEVERS: And remember, people really think Hillary Clinton is going to win the election. And if it happens, people here think their lives are basically going to be ruined. Like, they are really worried.

SUE BAILEY: We have no jobs here. Our children - we pack school lunches for them to take home, to feed them. We don't need...

MCEVERS: What do you mean, pack school lunches?

BAILEY: It's for that nobody goes hungry. We have to feed them. And there are so many kids in our community that has to be fed on the weekends for that because there's no jobs in our community.

MCEVERS: So where do you do that?

BAILEY: At our schools.

MCEVERS: You do - you pack lunches on Fridays for them to take home...


MCEVERS: ...For the weekend?

BAILEY: Cans of soup, boxes of cereal, things like that. Our cooks do that. Yes. My name is Sue Bailey.

MCEVERS: There are a few coal jobs left around here. Sue's husband has one of them.

How's it affected your life? Like, how has the changing economy here affected your...

BAILEY: Has it affected my life? My husband works, right now, six days - five and six days a week. He leaves my home at 3:30. He gets home at 5 o'clock. He's working for less money right now than he was 20 years ago. So, you know, look at us. Our insurance is higher. Our deductibles are higher. He's working for less money. We can't afford anything. I mean, you live day-to-day, payday-to-payday.

MCEVERS: Retirement?

BAILEY: His retirement has been cut. They won't put anything in his retirement - just what he can deposit hisself.

MCEVERS: It used to be benefits, right?

BAILEY: It used to benefits. He has nothing now - nothing. They cut everything, and that's Obama. That...

MCEVERS: Not the companies?

BAILEY: Not the companies. It's the rules that Obama set up against the coal and our work.


BENDEREV: We have a little - hi.


JENNY HALL: Say, my name is Malachi (ph).

BENDEREV: Malachi's mom is Jenny Hall, and her husband's Justin Hall.

JENNY HALL: He's actually in the coal mining industry.

BENDEREV: Oh, really?

JENNY HALL: Yes, for about eight years. And I'm a nurse.

JUSTIN HALL: If we don't have coal, we'll have to move. I mean, we won't be in this area. There's nothing left here, you know? That's the only that this whole county and south West Virginia's thrived on coal. Without coal, we - we ain't got anything, really.

JENNY HALL: It's a family generation, you know? His uncles whose in coal minings and own coal mines. And his dad drove a coal truck. So, you know, it's very in their blood. It's all they've known.

MCEVERS: Jenny says, now, they're thinking about moving to Indiana where her niece is.

JENNY HALL: 'Cause we went visiting up there this summer in case, OK, what - we need a backup plan if Hillary does, you know, get president.

JUSTIN HALL: Yeah, we...

MCEVERS: So you don't want to move, but you've got a backup plan?

JENNY HALL: Yeah. We have to. We have - you know, probably, don't you think?

JUSTIN HALL: Hillary gets to looking - she's probably more than likely - I mean, I hope not but...

MCEVERS: Do you think if Hillary wins you have to move, basically?

JUSTIN HALL: That's a good possibility. Yes. Definitely. I mean, we might make it for a few years. But eventually, if you're going to have anything in life besides a minimum-wage job, yeah, probably.

JENNY HALL: And this - you know, you can't - we want more to give to our kids.


MCEVERS: Two days later, Donald Trump wins the election. And the people in the coal counties of central Appalachia vote overwhelmingly for Trump. But let me say right here - even though some of these voters were from states that went for Trump, they alone did not turn the election in favor of Trump. White people without a college education - namely, in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania - did that. Pennsylvania is a coal state but, again, the coal vote wasn't the crucial thing.

Now, coal and jobs were the major reasons people told us they voted the way they did. And some people did talk to us about other reasons like abortion and race, or what researchers call racial resentment, this feeling some white people have that people of color are taking what they think is theirs, a resentment that goes back a long way like to that other war, the war on poverty. And some white people saw government spending as favoring people of color. And now there's a lot of research out there asking whether people who voted for Trump actually voted the way they did because of economic hardship or perceived economic hardship or because of this racial resentment. Some studies suggest it's about race. And we are going to talk about race in these episodes.

But look, I know that knowing this is maybe how some people voted also makes this project fraught, right? Like, not only are the people of Appalachia skeptical of people like me coming and trying to tell their stories, the other thing I worry about is that some people who are listening outside of Appalachia might be like, why do I need to hear the stories of people who might have voted this way?


MCEVERS: So here's what we're going to do. We're going to follow a handful of people in coal country over the first year and change of the Trump administration and just see how their lives go, see if this promise to bring back coal comes true. We'll meet some young guys who are deciding whether to bank on a thing that most people say has no future - should they stay and work in coal or should they go? We'll watch as one man decides whether or not to let his company - his livelihood and the livelihood of a dozen or so other people - totally fold. We'll go to a place called the cloud factory, we'll go down in the hole. We'll hear some really surprising history about African-Americans and coal. And we'll watch as some people do start working their asses off like Trump said, just not for the reason you might think.


MCEVERS: These episodes were reported and written by Chris Benderev and me. They were produced by Chris, Noor Wazwaz and Lisa Pollack. They were edited by Lisa and mixed by Chris. We also had editing help from Karen Grigsby Bates, Neal Carruth, Tom Dreisbach, Neva Grant, Rebecca Hersher, Jennifer Ludden and Mark Memmott. Fact checking by Greta Pittenger. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Other original music is by Ramtin Arablouei. Huge thanks to Ruth Sherlock, Joe Street (ph), Benny Becker, Taylor Kuykendall, Ralph Dunlop (ph), Rean McKeen (ph), Susan Stansel (ph), Elizabeth Kat (ph), Chris Dillow (ph), Tom McGlaughlin (ph), Kait Larkin (ph), and Roger May.

Roger runs this project called Looking at Appalachia. It's a crowdsourced image archive that attempts to establish a visual counterpoint to the war-on-poverty era. You can see his photographs too at

The film clips you heard in this episode were from "The Crusader" by the BBC, "Harlan County, USA" by Barbara Kopple, "Stranger With A Camera" by Elizabeth Barret of Appalshop and "Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People" by Jack Willis. We are very grateful to these filmmakers for permission to use these clips. You really should see all of these films.

EMBEDDED is executive produced by Anya Grundmann, Chris Turpin and me. We are back next week with more coal stories. Subscribe to this podcast. Leave a review. Hit us up on Twitter - @nprembedded. I'm Kelly McEvers. That's it. Thanks.

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