Redistributing Risk: The Political Ecology of Coal in Late Twentieth Century Appalachia
“Redistributing Risk” explains how coal, which powered the industrial revolution, continued to be a linchpin of U.S. energy production long into the post-industrial era. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coal fueled everything from railroad engines to the foundries that forged the steel on which they rode. But the market for coal dwindled during the middle of the twentieth century, and by the 1960s many Americans viewed it as a relic of a dirty and dangerous industrial past. Surprisingly, the industry rebounded during the 1970s, when concerns about energy supplies pushed policymakers and electricity producers to renew the nation’s reliance on coal. In the forty years since, new technology has amplified demand for electricity, and coal has powered yet another revolution in the global political economy. Ironically, a fuel that mid-century observers saw as a thing of the past actually illuminated their future.
I argue that the key to the industry’s success during the 1970s was a redistribution of the risks associated with coal mining. By the late 1960s, the danger of underground mining was among the industry’s greatest liabilities. High death rates from workplace accidents and the millions disabled by respiratory diseases like coal miners’ pneumoconiosis (commonly referred to as black lung) contributed significantly to coal’s poor reputation. Death rates began to plummet after Congress passed the first comprehensive federal mine safety law in 1969, but miners’ efforts to enforce safety through work stoppages and the pressure to stabilize productivity led operators toward a greater reliance on surface methods, which were safer for workers but more dangerous for nearby communities, ecosystems, and—with the later spread of mountaintop removal—to the mountains themselves.
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