My hometown is a community still longing for the old days. Like in many coal towns, the people of Shamokin seem to have an unusual fascination with coal mining, romanticizing about an industry that caused irreparable harm on our people and community. Perhaps with so many decades between then and now, it’s easy to forget how things really were; and it’s impossible to consider how a mining town can ever move beyond coal.
There’s no doubt that coal is a very important part of Shamokin’s rich history and heritage. Members of my own family, going back generations, were employed by the coal industry. These weren’t ideal jobs. Men toiled the mines because there was nowhere else to work. Miners were injured, some were killed; many, after years of breathing in coal dust, suffered from black lung and other respiratory illnesses.
Despite the dangerous work, miners were treated very poorly. Coal companies refused to provide fair wages and safe working environments and often took advantage of workers’ impoverishment and desperation. Consider company stores, which forced workers to buy everyday goods from their employer at a premium price. Men were left indebted to the store (and, therefore, the company) simply by buying necessities to keep their families clothed and nourished. Such practices can be likened to indentured servitude.
Thanks to the labor movement, hard fought in places like Shamokin, coal mines are better, safer places to work today (Read about the 1877 Shamokin Uprising). It’s not surprising that the positions recently created by Gov. Wolf at the Mount Carmel mine are high-paying, union jobs.
Some say that we should be doing everything we can to rebuild the coal industry. I have a better idea. Let’s rebuild coal towns. Rather than attempt to revive an unsustainable 19th century technology, we should be investing in the very towns that sacrificed so much for the sake of progress. Communities like Shamokin helped fuel the 20th century industrial revolution. Empower them so that they can fuel the 21st century economy.
Rebuild and improve the infrastructure of these towns, clean the waterways, restore abandoned strip mines, revitalize the main streets and protect the lands that have been left untouched so that future generations can enjoy natural beauty. Retool our empty factories and vacant industrial sites so local workers can build the components needed for a clean energy revolution.
Clean, renewable energy is the future. Coal, a finite resource that takes tens of millions of years to form, isn’t sustainable nor cheap. Coal is polluting our air and water and is a major contributor to climate change.
There are those who don’t care about clean air and water or the impacts of climate change like extreme heat and flooding. There are those who say we must create jobs at any cost.
Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between our health and economic growth. While the coal industry is on the decline, renewable energy is on the rise. Wind power employs more workers than the coal mining sector. Solar industry workers outnumber all of the coal industry’s employees combined. In fact, a $1 million investment in renewable energy results in three times the permanent jobs (jobs that last more than 40 years) than the same investment in coal. Sadly, many of the coal jobs that are being created will likely not last through the decade.
The advancement of technology has made many products obsolete. How many households in Shamokin still have rotary dial phones? Or VCRs? Or answering machines? Similarly, natural gas and renewable energy technologies are making coal obsolete.
Some would say coal is in our blood. I don’t doubt that. Coal will remain a focal point of our community for a long, long time. It has, after all, left its indelible mark in the form of orange, lifeless creeks; mountainous culm banks; stripped-mined lands; and a beaten down workforce that doesn’t believe they’re worthy of anything better.
We can respect our heritage and our history while simultaneously looking to the future. We are deserving of far more… not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.
It won’t be easy, but then again, neither was a life of mining.
Look to the future, advance beyond coal.
(Faraguna is a founding member of Susquehanna Valley Progress.)