Wake Up, Appalachia, Donald Trump Is Just A Modern-Day Coal Baron

An article recently published in The Wall Street Journal focuses on Donald Trump’s success in southwest Virginia’s Buchanan County, which is located one county over from where I grew up. Sharing a border with West Virginia, Buchanan County sits in the state’s coal mining country. It is the third-poorest Virginia county, with $29,183 as its 2010 median household income, and according to the article’s title, it is “the place that wants Donald Trump most.”

For many poor, coal-dependent members of Appalachian communities like those in Buchanan County, Donald Trump appears to be an answer to years of prayers. However, Trump is anything but. Those who take a closer look will find Trump is much more like the coal barons of old than a modern-day savior.

For those unfamiliar with Appalachia, it is a different world to much of America. Even rural Scott County, where I grew up, is a world away from counties like Buchanan and Dickenson, where coal is king. Tens of thousands of new residents flocked to coal country in the first half of the 20th century looking for employment in the aftermath of the Great Depression. When the decline of the coal industry began in the 1960s, the population of the region declined with it. However, more stayed than left, and it is those people, living through a Great Appalachian Depression, who see Donald Trump as a political savior.

Scene from Appalachia
This misled devotion to Donald Trump is the result of his personality, his ridiculous promises, and his impossible plans. In the recent article, The Wall Street Journal mentioned several of Donald Trump’s plans and promises that appeal directly to the people of Appalachia. Included is his intention to scrap the Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump announced in an interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” back in October when asked which departments he would cut.

“Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace. Every week they come out with new regulations. They’re making it impossible.”

Wallace then asked him who would protect the environment if he shuttered the EPA. Donald Trump, of course, had an answer.

“They — we’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

What the people of Buchanan County and the other counties in Appalachia need to note is that the EPA is the only thing standing between them and environmental ruin. According to a July 2014 toxic air emissions report published by the Sierra Club, Buchanan County has the fourth highest toxic air emissions in Virginia. What is the source of the toxicity? Unsurprisingly, the source is the coal industry, specifically Jewell Coke Co. L.P.

Unfortunately, air quality is not the only environmental issue affecting Appalachia. Mountaintop removal mining, which has replaced underground mining in many areas, brings new and different threats to the region. According to Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit group based in Boone, North Carolina, the impacts of mountaintop removal mining include “contaminated drinking water, sometimes daily blasting, increased flooding, and unsafe coal slurry impoundments.” Well, Mr. Trump, it doesn’t sound — or look — fine to me.

Mountaintop removal mining
Are toxic air, flooding, undrinkable water, and the threat of slurry dam breaches not enough to make Appalachian voters rethink their devotion to Donald Trump and his anti-environmental platform? Are the consequences for future generations not enough to make them see that coal is not worth the cost? Apparently, the answer is no. Apparently, my neighbors prefer to support Donald Trump, a big-business man who cares only about profits and nothing about them and their mountains.

If environmental concerns are not enough to stop Appalachians from supporting Donald Trump, health care should be. An article published last year in The Atlantic called Grundy, the Buchanan County seat, “the sickest town in America.” While the title of the sickest town is a bit misleading, Buchanan County is, in fact, the most disabled county in America, a distinction pointed out in a response published in the Roanoke Times. In case you were wondering, Dickenson County comes in a close second. According to 2014 disability statistics compiled by Urban Institute, 20 percent of adults in Buchanan County receive Social Security Disability benefits, followed by 18.3 percent of adults in Dickenson County.

Appalachian health care solutions
Donald Trump has announced his intention to repeal the Affordable Care Act should he win the presidency. However, he has failed to convince experts of his plan’s viability. According to a CNBC report on Donald Trump’s health care reform plan, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget claims the plan “would cost nearly a half-trillion dollars more over the course of a decade — and lead to nearly 21 million people losing their health insurance.”

I agree that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it is unaffectionately called, is not perfect — not by a long shot. For many people in places like Buchanan and Dickenson counties, the only employment options outside of coal are low-wage jobs that leave nothing left over to pay for health insurance. However, it is important to realize that the final version of the Affordable Care Act is merely a shadow of President Obama’s original vision, and the Republicans are the ones who deserve credit for passing legislation that has done only part of what it was intended to do. Regardless of its faults, the ACA is better than Donald Trump’s completely unfeasible plan.

If I have failed so far to convince you of the faults in Donald Trump’s plan, let me approach the matter from a different direction. If you live in Appalachia, you have heard the stories of the company towns that grew up in our mountains in the early 20th century. Perhaps you live in a town like Dante, Virginia, home to 4,000 people in its heyday and now home to about 650. Abandoned by coal and the majority of its residents, it sits lonely and forgotten on the side of a mountain as a reminder of how much big business cares about the common man.

Mining structures in Appalachian company town
Do you think Donald Trump cares more about you than Pittston Coal cared about the miners in Dante when it closed the mines in 1959 and left the town’s people to fend for themselves? Do you think Donald Trump cares more about you than Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship cared about the 29 miners who died because of the safety lapses he let happen on his watch? Do you think Donald Trump cares more about you than Patriot Coal cared about the retired miners who lost their pensions when the company filed for bankruptcy? Do you think Donald Trump cares more about you than Alpha Natural Resources cares about the miners whose benefits they want to discontinue while paying huge bonuses to the very executives who led the company into bankruptcy?

The answer is no, and here is why: First, Donald Trump is a businessman, and very few businessmen care about the common man. Second, Donald Trump was born a millionaire. At the time of his father’s death, the value of the Trump estate was estimated between $250 and $300 million. No one born with millions can possibly understand the struggles people in Appalachia face.

Basically, Donald Trump talks a good game. Trump says what people want to hear. He has created an image designed to make him look like a common man, but he is anything but. Please, my fellow Appalachians, wake up. I promise you Donald Trump is nothing more than a modern-day coal baron, and I guarantee you Donald Trump, like his predecessors, will abandon you once you have served his needs.

[Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images]