Former Coal Miner Seeks Just Energy Transition

Nick Mullins is a former fourth-generation coal miner from Georges Fork, a small valley in the far southwestern tip of Virginia near eastern Kentucky. After leaving the mines at age 30, Nick embraced a new environmental ethos, and has become a voice for the region about the effects of coal culture. The Planet recently caught up with him to talk about his life after coal mining and how he and his family are using their story to educate others and facilitate a dialog about coal in all corners of the country.

You have been traveling this summer across the country, sharing your story as a former coal miner. Tell us about the experience of the “Breaking Clean Tour” and what your goals have been for the project.

Our experience has been phenomenal. We’ve had the honor of meeting hundreds of people dedicated to protecting the health of their communities, as well as witnessing first hand the generosity of people willing to take our family into their homes. It’s uplifting to see so many people dedicated to the same goals as we are, just in different locations with different issues. There are several goals within our tour, but perhaps the most important has been building connections between communities and the issues they each face. By presenting our personal story of the impacts coal extraction has had on our lives, and our life’s journey since then, we hope to open people up to the broader understanding of environmental justice we have come to know over the past few years. So often we find ourselves intently focused upon the issues closest to us that we sometimes forget the bigger picture. As we have learned, everything is connected and we must realize the work we do affects people living elsewhere--sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Along the way we spend time getting to know the communities and initiatives people are taking towards sustainable living and environmental justice issues. This helps us to continue broadening our own understandings while giving us the chance connect people and spread new ideas to new places.

Nick Mullins, a former coal miner, now speaks out against the industry

You planned, specifically, to travel to the Northwest to share the stories of coal miners. What was your reasoning behind traveling to this particular region?

The Pacific Northwest is in a unique position to determine the future of mining operations in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. As US thermal coal continues to lose ground to natural gas and renewable energy within the electrical generation sector, mining companies are seeking to extend coal’s profit viability in foreign markets by constructing coal export terminals along the west coast and shipping the coal overseas. We felt it was important to learn from organizations working to stop the construction of export terminals and to share with them a better understanding of how that work will impact local mining communities who are being impacted by coal extraction.

You stopped in at Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco, where I was fortunate enough to participate in a compelling conversation about the future of coal in Appalachia. What has the dialogue been like with various people and groups to whom you’ve spoken?

What we’ve found is that the majority of our tour presentations are given to like-minded people. In most cases, the discussion becomes solution oriented with many people focusing on the necessity for renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. From there we try to bring energy efficiency to the forefront of the conversation as a more easily obtained start to a long term and just energy transition. This ultimately leads us into a conversation about our culture and how it is influenced by cheap energy. Communication strategies and public education then become a focal point as we discuss better ways to connect with a larger demographic, including many blue collar workers and their families, and how to correlate energy efficiency into the everyday financial struggles many people face.

What has it been like for you, a former coal miner, to now be speaking against the industry?

It’s been complicated. As we progress towards a coal free future, I am fully aware of the economic implications it will have back home. There are few job alternatives for Appalachian people due to the mono-economy created and maintained by the coal industry. To say that coal mining families are facing a difficult financial situation would be putting it lightly. At the same time however, I realize that there is much more at stake than the short lived economic prosperity coal mining provides to Appalachian communities and others. The health issues associated with coal pollution and the impending problems of global climate change are enough reason for me to speak at length about the need for a just energy transition.

With the coal industry in decline, particularly in the Appalachian region, the question has become, “What is the future of coal?” What industries or initiatives do you think could benefit the region both culturally and economically?

Energy efficiency is perhaps one of our best options in alleviating the economic distress we are seeing in coal mining communities. Not only would making homes and businesses more energy efficient provide hundreds of jobs with livable wages in building trades such as carpentry, masonry, electrical, heating and cooling, plumbing, and so on, it would also decrease energy costs. Appalachian people were once known for their ability to sustain themselves on very little, enjoying their freedom from various economic constraints. I believe that once people are reminded of their heritage and are faced with the inevitability of coal’s decline, we will begin to see the resiliency Appalachian people are known for. There are several organizations working to help in this transition, including the Mountain Association of Community Economic Development (MACED) which focuses a great deal on alternative economics based on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and Grow Appalachia, an organization that works to increase local food production in the central Appalachian coalfields and surrounding areas.

Your time on the road is coming to an end within the next few days. How do you plan to keep a project like this going? What are your next steps?

My wife and I are entering our senior year at Berea College in Kentucky which will make it challenging for us to maintain the level of activism we were able to achieve over the summer. Our hope is to combine assignments and projects with our activism in a way that will allow us to finish our undergraduate degrees. Once we’ve graduated, we are hoping to continue the tour, perhaps through starting a non-profit organization and raising funds. We would like to take our message to new audiences, especially younger audiences at various colleges and universities, perhaps even high schools, all institutions we have been unable to reach due to our own educational commitments during the same time of the year.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to support economic transition for Appalachia.

Up Next

Próximo Artículo