Andrew Strahan never considered what he would do with his life after high school. Like his father, his grandfather and so on up to five generations of the Strahan dynasty he knew that his future lay underground, in the coal mines from border between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the largest mining basin in North America. Seven years ago he closed the books forever and a month later he went down to his first gallery. “It is in my blood, it is part of my identity. The alternative was to go to college, get out of there in debt up to the eyebrows and without guarantees of a good job & rdquor ;, he says now at 25 years old as he chews tobacco and punctuates the sentences by spitting in a bottle of Coca-Cola. The mine pays well with salaries that are around $ 100,000 per year, but it is a world that is falling apart inexorably.
Strahan stayed without work in April, as well as 240 other miners, after Consol Energy announced the temporary closure of the Enlow Fork mine alluding to the collapse in demand caused by the pandemic. Nothing new for these lands, which have seen almost all farms in southwestern Pennsylvania shut down in the last decade. Only two are still open. “These people thought they would retire in the mines. Every time they close, it is a drama because the entire economy suffers. There aren’t many more middle-class salaries around here, & rdquor; says Kristie Vleit, the owner of a bakery in downtown Waynesburg. The others are in a state prison and in the natural gas, exploited abundantly in the region through hydraulic fracturing.
In the town they only see each other these days election posters of Donald Trump. Those of Joe Biden they can be counted on one hand. Four years ago the Republican wanted to become the savior of this same industry that propelled the Industrial Revolution, long before the climate change convert it into non-grata energy. “We are going to relaunch the beautiful and clean coal & rdquor ;, he proclaimed over and over again in the mining and industrial states that were key to his electoral victory. Promised reactivate production, create thousands of jobs and end the “war on coal & rdquor; of Barack Obama. For the miners, it was as if a ray of light entered their cavities. Particularly in the face of Hillary Clinton’s transition plans towards renewables, who in an epic slip said a phrase that no one has forgotten about these payments: “we are going to put a lot of coal miners and mining companies out of work.
But Trump has been unable to stem the dramatic decline of the more polluting of fossil fuels. Not even after dismantle the policies of its predecessor to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants or obstacles to the sector to discharge mercury into the atmosphere and waste into water. Measures that, in reality, had not begun to be applied. “Coal power companies continue to close in this country, faster, in fact, than in Obama’s second term. And in these four years we have lost 5,000 jobs & rdquor ;, says Robert Smith, spokesman for the industry’s main union, the United Miners Workers of America. From generating 33% of the electricity consumed by Americans in 2016, coal has come to represent only 20%, a collapse accelerated by the pandemic.
His space has been eaten by natural gas, cheap and plentiful, emanating from hills like these, but also renewables, which for the first time in 130 years have overtaken coal in the US energy menu, according to data from his own government, something that could not be seen from the splendor of the wood. “Trump created hope in a lot of people and he has not delivered,” says Smith, whose union has not endorsed any candidate in this election. “But it is also true that there is little I could have done because it is the market rules that rule & rdquor ;. In no corner of the country are there plans to build new coal-fired power plants. More than 200 have closed in the last decade.
Hope and false promises
But in this Greene County no one seems to feel betrayed by the president, whom 68% of its 40,000 citizens voted. “One person cannot resuscitate the industry, there are many factors in the equation & rdquor ;, says Strahan by way of apology, who will vote again in November. And till Democrats write off the miners even though not so long ago this was a stronghold of his party. “There is not going to be a turnaround because these people need hope and Trump gives it to them, even with unrealistic promises,” says Bob Vitolo, a retired professor who distributes Biden posters in town without much success.
In these elections, the Democratic candidate has put on the table a plan of 2 trillion dollars to decarbonize the economy. Before 2035, it has been proposed to end carbon dioxide emissions from electricity companies. “Their policies are a threat to communities like mine because they will end coal forever,” says Strahan, summarizing the sentiment of the mining basins. Biden also has plans for the economic reconversion of communities like his, but here they are fed up with such promises never being kept. Not even when they try to cook from the municipality. “We constantly talk about diversifying the economy and bringing in new industries, the problem is that communities like this are not attractive enough for companies because they have a small population and poor infrastructure,” acknowledges Mike Seams, one of its local leaders.
That is why many here think that Trump is the last hope they have left to avoid the death of coal, which is nothing other than their way of life, its economy and its identity. “I experienced it as a child in Scranton and Allentown. When the mines closed, they became ghost towns and it was a long time before they began to raise their heads & rdquor; says Vleit, the pastry chef. It is still ironic that it was precisely in Scranton (Pennsylvania) that Biden was born, the man who I could tip the charcoal or, if he keeps his promises, a future for this land clinging to the last spasms of its past.