WILLIAMSON, WV (Reuters) - With coal trains chugging past in the distance, Jack Perry watches as his wife, Margie, plants row upon row of Hungarian pepper seedlings in the community garden that residents of this West Virginia coal town call the “Garden of Eatin’.”
“The peppers they sell at the stores don’t taste anything like this,” says Perry, a retired coal worker. His grandfather brought over the original batch of seeds in the early 1900s when he arrived from Hungary to work in southern West Virginia’s mines.
The coal industry that sustained those generations is on life support in Williamson and surrounding Mingo County, battered by exhausted mines and competition from natural gas. Williamson’s faded sign welcoming drivers to “the heart of the billion dollar coal field” now competes with billboards for weight loss and pain clinics, and the main street is lined with empty storefronts and pawn shops.
Unlike their neighbors in Kentucky, where there have been state-sponsored economic transition efforts, West Virginians have been largely left on their own to respond to coal’s decline. The state’s politicians have focused on fighting federal emissions regulations in Congress and in court, blaming the Obama administration for imposing what they say are crippling costs on the industry.
But many people here argue that hope rides less on the outcome of court challenges and more on things as humble as Margie Perry’s peppers. She sells her produce at a locally funded farmers’ market in this town of 3,000, part of a community movement called “Sustainable Williamson.”
The project is the brainchild of Dr. Dino Beckett, a Williamson native who left home to attend medical school but returned a dozen years ago. Now 45, with two children of his own, Beckett is determined to help restore the town to the thriving place his parents knew.
“Our approach to the transition away from coal is holistic community development,” says Beckett, sitting in the Williamson Health and Wellness Center that serves as headquarters of Sustainable Williamson. He sees a local-foods movement as a way to help some of the least-fit people in America get healthier, while laying the foundation for eventual large-scale agriculture and economic development on coalfields once flattened for mining.
“A lot of people don’t associate health with entrepreneurship,” Beckett said. “But if we help people get healthy, the workforce is going to get healthy and they are going to want to work and participate in activities that help their families.”
Mingo County is located in what the U.S. Agriculture Department labels a food desert: an area lacking access to affordable, healthy food. The county places near the top of almost every poverty-associated ranking – number 3 of West Virginia’s 55 counties in drug overdoses; second in chronic pulmonary disease - and has one of the worst life expectancy rates in the country, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Leasha Johnson, head of the Mingo County Economic Development Authority, said Mingo’s land use plan envisions converting former mine sites into a variety of uses, from cattle grazing to hog and chicken farms, air transportation and wood products.
One small company - Freedom Seed and Feed - is piloting a project on a reclaimed mountaintop coal mine in Williamson to grow industrial hemp. The company has been promoting the use of hemp in fibers, milk, and building materials like cement and concrete.
Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia’s Republican senator, echoed that need to remake old mine sites for farming and small manufacturing. But Capito, a leading voice against the Obama administration’s regulations limiting carbon emissions from coal plants, has been reluctant to match Kentucky’s interventionist approach.
“My solution would be to bridge the skills gap, such as coal to gas training,” she says, referring to opportunities in the state’s new lucrative extractive industry - natural gas drilling. “You have to give people a sense of hope that they have the tools to be able to diversify and stay in the community where they wish to live.”
Williamson is separated from eastern Kentucky by a narrow stretch of the Tug Fork River. Across the state line, Kentucky has embarked on a top-down political effort to kick-start economic diversification. But similar efforts have foundered in West Virginia.
“People are afraid of being seen as anti-coal because it is such a dominant political force,” says Democratic state senator and gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler, who tried - but failed - last year to get support for a publicly funded jobs initiative similar to one being pushed by political leaders in Kentucky.
That’s why so much rides on what Beckett and others like him are doing.
In 2011, the doctor found himself dealing with increasing numbers of patients who were either unemployed or had no insurance, and opened a free clinic alongside his own practice. With federal funding, his clinic now has a diabetes center and a dental practice.
He later hired half a dozen former coal miners to expand his office space and convert it to high energy efficiency standards, adding a “health innovation hub” in the city gym that helps business start-ups.
And this fall, Williamson will mark the fourth running of the 5-kilometer Coal Dust Run. Along the route, participants are sprayed with fake coal dust, honoring the area’s heritage as well as promoting better health.
“We are not giving up on the fact that our history is in coal mining,” says Mingo County’s Johnson. But she is working with students from the local community college to come up with a new sign for Williamson to help position the town - and county - for a future that is not completely reliant on coal.
“We want people to know we are capable of diversifying,” she says. “We can do that.”
Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bruce Wallace and Frances Kerry