I am currently working on a documentary on coal mining in McDowell County, West Virginia, deep in the heart of Appalachia.
McDowell County is one of the poorest and most remote counties in the United States. In fact Welch, the county seat, had at one time the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States. Thousands of immigrants came from all over the world to work in the coalfields. Think of the movie Matewan.
Now Welch is scarcely a shadow of it's former self. Still, today more coal is taken out of this area than at any time in it's history, However, mechanization and non-union mining left the county destitute. In Addition, many of the coal companies have treated the people there with disdain and have taken advantage of the miners and their families. .
Black lung, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse just a few of the problems that have come with poverty in McDowell County. Black lung disease is on the rise among all the miners after several years of decline. Many of the formerly rich towns in the area are now little more than ghost towns and still the only jobs that pay more than minimum wage are the most dangerous jobs in the world - coal mining. Very few people here have health care insurance or access to medical clinics.
The following images are from the past 3 years of my photodocumentary work here. In the context of the national economy where many of us are currently suffering, this project is a reminder that some of our fellow countrymen have had it much worse for a long time and they should not be forgotten.
In fact, they need to be celebrated as heroes. They are reason the lights are still on in our homes. However that is not to celebrate coal - we need to find alternatives and quickly - but as in all decisions involving policy, you cannot forget that people's lives are deeply affected.
And then there is Mountaintop Mining, but that is another story.
all photos copyright © 2011 by les stone · all rights reserved