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How the Sinking Coal Industry is Linked to the Drug Addiction Epidemic


Author: Shernide Delva

Throughout the industrial revolution, coal fueled the United States and created a bustling economy in coal-rich regions. The coal industry was thriving so much that in these regions, many decided to skip college all together and work in mines after secondary school instead. Unfortunately, that popular decision is beginning to haunt many families who live in coal regions today. Now that the United States is shifting to more natural energy sources, those coal jobs are gone and not coming back.   As these coal dependent states lose jobs, many lose hope and turn to drug addiction instead.

Furthermore, there has been a huge drug addiction epidemic in previous coal-dependent regions of the United States. The areas affected profoundly are in central Appalachia which is made up with states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania among others. The resulting devastation has hit not only economically, but also emotionally. According to a recent article in Forbes, the coal devastation is one of the main reason drug addiction among local residents are now at dangerous levels.

These states have lost their coal economy to cleaner fuel options.  Recent hydraulic fracturing technology has given natural gas producers access to deposits that had previously been unattainable. Meanwhile, coal-rich states sit on their plush deposits which over the past few years continue to become obsolete.

The good news is that this gas revolution is projected to create nearly 3 million jobs by 2020, of which 1.7 million will be permanent. According to consulting firm Mckinsey and Company, these benefits should be dispersed all throughout the United States. However, these jobs tend to be focused more on the gulf coast where 20 percent of the nation’s gas production now takes place. As a result, previous coal rich states are getting the proverbial short end of the stick.

It is a cruel transition. Regions that were once blessed with a rich natural resource have lost their economy to cleaner fuels and upgraded technology. Now, these coal-dependent states are left pondering what to do.  For example, West Virginia now has one of the poorest-performing economies in the country and areas in the state where coal mining is concentrated are the state’s poorest and least economically diversified. Consequently, due to low education rates, these areas seem unable to recover and reverse their reliance on a now dwindling coal industry.

For now, the coal industry relies on countries that still rely heavily on coal resources such as China and India; however it is risky to believe that relying on these countries will restore the economy.  Coal exports continue to decline each year and many coal plants are either close to going out of business or have decided to switch to natural gas. For now, switching to natural gas may be the only way to boost up the region’s economy as well as encourage education in these states.

“The best hope of replacing lost coal jobs is through natural gas industry gains,” says Jim Russell, a lawyer for Steptoe & Johnson in Morgantown, W.V.

In the meantime, drug addiction rates climb due to the uncertainty.  West Virginia has the highest amount of youth overdoses than any other state in the country. Drug deaths have more than doubled for ages 12 to 25.  The increase is especially huge among young adults ages 19 to 25.

Although there are a variety of factors that play into the increase in drug addiction problems, it is interested to see this correlation between the decline in demand for coal and a spike in drug addiction issues. The prescription painkiller epidemic is hitting states all over the country and it related to various other factors.  However, in West Virginia these numbers far exceed any other state in the country.

“The drug problem is our No. 1 problem,” Johnson said. “We’re a community that’s hitting it head on. We’re not trying to sweep it under the table. We’re trying to be aggressive”

While West Virginia fights to improve their economy and drug addiction issues, other states struggle to come up with solutions. Overall, it is interesting to see how a shift in technology and the way we use energy contributed to the drug addiction epidemic in those regions.

Hopefully, overtime, a new industry will emerge in these areas that will thrive and turn these states around. Remember, if you are struggling with substance abuse that you are not alone. So many people are fighting the same battle. 

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