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Appalachia Steps Up Effort to Make Clean Break from Coal

Communities in Tennessee are looking for alternative industry to support their economy as the coal industry continues its decline. (Jan Truter/Flickr)
Communities in Tennessee are looking for alternative industry to support their economy as the coal industry continues its decline. (Jan Truter/Flickr)
February 9, 2018

CLINTON, Tenn. – At one point, roughly half of the counties in Tennessee were supported by the coal industry in some way. As the fossil fuel industry declines, efforts to secure new industries are increasing in parts of the state.

For more than two years, the Appalachian Regional Commission – a federal and state partnership – has invested $94 million in communities from New York to Mississippi that once were supported in some way by the coal industry.

Wendy Wasserman, the commission's communications director, says helping these counties reinvent themselves is easier said than done.

"If you're coming from a multi-generational family that has a long heritage stake in a certain industry and you're told all of a sudden that you have to do something different,” she says, “that takes a lot of hard work both with yourself and with your community to overcome. So, it's not as simple as flipping a switch."

A report released in late January confirms what the commission and other economic groups have suspected – that the declining coal industry will have impacts on communities beyond those specifically involved in mining.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, while coal had been declining in recent years, last year, during Donald Trump's first year as president, coal production was 12 percent higher than during the same period in 2016.

This week, the commission is requesting proposals from private businesses with services that might help coal communities in areas such as workforce training, broadband expansion and business development. It's part of the POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative.

Wasserman says after two years of the effort, they're seeing what's working in the communities.

She says, "The industries that we're really seeing take off with great interest: Manufacturing is one of them, local food is another one, entrepreneurship – lots of clever folks who are either starting their own small business or trying to figure out how to bring that entrepreneurial skill to life."

There is currently $20 million available for the program. So far, POWER Initiative investments have created or regained almost 9,000 jobs and leveraged an additional $210 million in investment.

Tennessee counties Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Cumberland, Fentress, Marion and Scott are listed by the commission as heavily dependent on coal.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN