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How big is big coal Public perceptions o

OAEXXX10.1177/1086026612464766Organization & EnvironmentBlaacker et al.
How Big Is Big Coal? Public
Perceptions of the Coal
Industry’s Economic
Impact in West Virginia
Organization & Environment
25(4) 385­–401
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1086026612464766
Debra Blaacker1, Joshua Woods1, and Christopher Oliver2
The coal industry has played a major role in the culture and history of the state of West Virginia,
establishing an identity as the “backbone” of the economy in this region. However, as the mining
process has become more mechanized, employment has declined and risks have increased, but
support for the industry continues. This study explores research that could provide explanations for this phenomenon and examines whether there is an overestimation of the role of the
coal industry in the regional economy. We also examine factors that may affect one’s perceptions of the economic impact of the industry. In particular, certain demographic qualities or
ideological tendencies described in previous work by Bell and York are shown to have some
effect on these perceptions.
coal industry, risks, benefits, economic impact, ideology, Friends of Coal, college student
population, West Virginia, social factors
A well-supported finding in the risk perception literature is that people’s judgments of a danger
depend partially on whether the source of danger also provides an economic benefit or personal
utility (Alhakami & Slovic, 1994; Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000; Kahneman,
Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 1982). Much of this literature suggests that some hazards of everyday life produce strong positive feelings, which cloud or bias
perceptions of the potential danger. Other researchers maintain that individuals are sometimes
motivated to accept risky situations in order to obtain valued outcomes. In either case, perceived
benefit is thought to be negatively associated with perceived risk. Research in this area has
shown how individuals who perceive a benefit from smoking cigarettes (Hazard & Lee, 1999),
eating genetically modified foods (Grobe, Douthitt, & Zepeda, 1999; Zepeda, Douthitt, & You,
2003), living near a nuclear site (Burger, Sanchez, Gibbons, & Gochfeld, 1997; Williams, Brown,
Greenberg, & Kahn, 1999), or traveling internationally (Lepp & Gibson, 2003) report lower risk
perceptions and greater tolerance toward the respective hazards.
West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV, USA
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Debra Blaacker, West Virginia University, PO Box 6326, 307 Knapp Hall, Morgantown, WV 26506, USA
Email: [email protected]
Organization & Environment 25(4)
Although this literature provides important insight, it is almost entirely focused on risk perception as the dependent variable. This study, in contrast, examines how people ascertain the
value or benefit of tolerating risk. Taking a case study approach, we consider the perceived economic benefits of large-scale coal extraction in West Virginia. Although coal mining may indeed
play a vital role in the economic lives of many West Virginians, we investigate whether public
perceptions of these benefits match the actual economic data on the industry’s societal contributions, such as job creation, tax provision, and support of local institutions.
In the following sections, we explore the actual impact of the coal industry in West Virginia,
primarily using data from a 2010 report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy
(McIlmoil, Hansen, Boettner, & Miller, 2010a); other independent sources are used to confirm
these findings. We then discuss theories that explain why people may overvalue the coal industry’s economic impact. Our theoretical framework consists of two parts. We begin from a broad
social structural perspective and draw on the “treadmill of accumulation model” (Foster, 2005;
Foster, Clark, & York, 2010) to explain how current conditions in the coal industry—increasing
productivity and declining employment—have led mining companies to rely increasingly on
media campaigns, ideological manipulation, and attempts to influence local social relations in
order to gain consent and support from industry-based communities. Next, extending the work
of Bell and York (2010), we illuminate some effects of the coal industry’s ideology construction
in the media, particularly the overestimation of the industry’s economic benefits. We also theorize on why such economic judgments may vary across social groups. The aim of this framework
is to unite social structural and social psychological perspectives to offer a more complete understanding of people’s economic perceptions of the coal industry.
As an empirical basis, we examine survey data to compare the perceived to the actual impact
of coal mining in West Virginia. Perceptions of economic impact were measured using a selfadministrated survey of 494 students from a large university located in the state. We also offer
bivariate analyses of the factors that explain the variance in perceived economic impact across
groups. We conclude by considering this study’s limitations, contributions, and social and political implications.
The Coal Industry’s Actual Economic Impact on West Virginia
Historically, coal extraction has been the most important industry in terms of employment and
overall economic impact in West Virginia (Burns, 2007; Lewis, 1993). During the late half of
the 19th century, coal production in the state took place exclusively in northern Appalachian
mines. After the turn of the century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, large-scale operations
grew rapidly due to a combination of U.S. industrialization, the growing need for coal as an
energy resource, and the development of new technologies for excavating and transporting. As
a consequence of this jump in demand and changes in technology, coal production spread
through the state. Employing large numbers of people in rural and impoverished Appalachian
towns, the coal industry provided stability in the form of job security, tax revenues, indirect
employment, and other affiliated economic opportunities. Given the limited alternatives, growing numbers of West Virginians were drawn to coal companies for jobs and many more were
indirectly affected by the expansion of coal production.
Although coal outputs grew steadily between 1900 and 2000, employment in West Virginia
mining has rapidly declined since the 1940s. For instance, between 1900 and 1940, state employment in mining grew steadily, peaking at 130,457 miners in 1940. However, since 1941, the
number of miners decreased steadily (except between 1971 and 1978—a period that saw relatively large increases eventually peaking at 62,982 jobs). Since 1979, employment in mining has
rapidly decreased to a low of around 21,000 in 2008. The industry experienced a marked jump to
Blaacker et al.
27,895 in 2009 (West Virginia Coal Association, 2010). Similar declining trends took place in
other Appalachian mining states including Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.1 This decline in
employment, coupled with the concomitant increase in coal production, can be explained in part
by changes in technology (e.g., large-scale machinery such as earth movers), as well as a shift
from below ground mining operations to surface mining, primarily in the form of mountaintop
removal (MTR), which requires less labor.2
The total amount of coal extracted in West Virginia mines in 2008 was 165 million short tons,
which is about the same amount produced during similar past peak periods including 1924-1927,
1941-1948, and 1955-1957; this level of productivity has remained relatively stable since 1984
(West Virginia Coal Facts, 2011). The West Virginia coal industry is second in terms of total U.S.
production, representing roughly 13% of all U.S. coal production (U.S. Energy Information
Administration, 2012).
According to recent state employment data, coal mining operations employed 22,599 people
in 2010, which is approximately 3% of the total employment for the state (West Virginia Coal
Association, 2011; McIlmoil et al., 2010a).3 However, the West Virginia Coal Association asserts
that this figure is misleading, arguing that current employment figures cannot be compared with
historical coal employment numbers because in the first half of the 20th century coal companies
directly employed workers in all facets of production (e.g., mining extraction, maintenance, and
transportation). They maintain that a more reasonable number for comparison would be approximately 60,000, which, according to the authors, is the figure provided by a recent study by West
Virginia University and Marshall University (see Bureau of Business and Economic Research
and Center for Business and Economic Research [BBER/CBER], 2010). However, our reading
of the BBER/CBER report indicates that the total direct and indirect employment related to coal
mining is roughly 46,000, or 7% of total state employment; direct employment alone accounts
for only about 22,000 jobs, or 3% of total state employment (see BBER/CBER, 2010, Table 7).4
These figures correspond more closely to the numbers provided by other researchers (Bell &
York, 2010; McIlmoil, Hansen, Boettner, & Miller, 2010b).5
Combining all industries, the total wage earnings of West Virginians rose from $19.2 billion in
2000 to $27.4 billion in 2010, a 42% increase in 10 years (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2012).
During that period, the total wage earnings from coal mining rose from $906 million to $1.9 billion, a 120% increase. In 2010, coal mining accounted for 7% of total wages for West Virginia.
The tax on these wages, combined with other sources, provided substantial revenue to the state.
West Virginia receives revenue from coal mining primarily in the form of six taxes: property,
severance, worker’s compensation, corporation net income, special reclamation tax, and sales and
use tax (BBER/CBER, 2010). Additional revenue for the state is generated through the Coal
Resource Transportation Fund (and matched by the state) to maintain and repair the roads used by
coal companies to transport their products and reclamation funds, levied for purposes of remediation of polluted sites (CBER, 2010). The total tax revenue generated by the coal industry in the
years of 2008 and 2009 were both just over $600 million. West Virginia state tax revenues totaled
$3,758 million (or $3.8 billion) in the fiscal year 2009-2010. Consequently, the total tax revenue
generated by the coal industry in 2009 was 16% of the overall tax revenue for the state.
The presence of the coal industry in West Virginia can also be measured by the number of coal
companies headquartered in the state in conjunction with data on their percentage of the state’s
overall coal production. In 2009, six energy corporations owned subsidiaries that produced just
under 90% (87.2 million short tons) of West Virginia’s total coal production (98.7 million short
tons; West Virginia Coal Association, 2010).6 In order of production from highest to lowest (with
percentage of state’s total production in parenthesis), the companies are the following: (a)
CONSUL Energy, Inc. (29.8%); (b) Massey Coal Company, Inc. (23.8%); (c) Arch Coal, Inc.
(12.6%); (d) Patriot Coal Group (10.5%); (e) Alpha Natural Resource Services, LLC (6.4%); and
Organization & Environment 25(4)
(f) Coal River Energy (4.1%).7 Besides these interests, six additional coal companies produce the
other 10% of coal in West Virginia. We refer to the six largest firms as “major” producers and the
six smaller companies as “minor” players in West Virginia’s coal industry. Of the major producers only one is currently headquartered in West Virginia—Coal River Energy, the sixth largest
producer at about 4.1% of the state’s total production. With regard to the six minor coal producers, four of them are headquartered in West Virginia.
Theoretical Framework
The Treadmill of Accumulation, Extractive Industries, and Local Communities
Many rural communities depend on extractive resources (e.g., mining, timber, fishing, oil and
gas, etc.) for employment and other economic benefits for their livelihoods (Freudenberg &
Gramling, 1994; Prudham, 1998). Over the past century the actual economic impact of many
industries has decreased even as the extraction of resources increased (Bell & York, 2010;
Burns, 2007; Gould, Pellow, & Schnaiberg, 2008; Schnaiberg, 1980). Furthermore, these extractive activities have resulted in harmful public and environmental health problems. Nevertheless,
state and local governments continue to depend on these industries due to decreasing support
from other sources. This process of expanded production among extractive industries concomitant with decreasing employment in local communities can be located theoretically within a
treadmill of production perspective (Gould & Schnaiberg, 1994; Schnaiberg, 1980; Schnaiberg
& Gould, 1994).
However, a related model—the treadmill of accumulation—may better conceptualize our
research problem (Foster, 2005; Foster et al., 2010). Drawing on Marx, Baran, and Sweazy, and
Schnaiberg, among others, Foster argues that although production is an instrumental part of this
treadmill system, it is capital accumulation that is the foundation of monopoly capitalism
(Foster, 2005; Foster et al., 2010).8 According to Foster, the singular logic of the capitalist system is the extraction of value-added production, or surplus value, through the production of
commodities. This process is then reproduced with a continual “treadmill-like” operation allowing capitalists to accelerate the accumulation of this surplus value. In this effort, capitalists
devise strategies for enhancing this process of accumulation by exploiting the conditions and
relations of production (e.g., labor, land, nature, etc.) as forces of production (e.g., labor, technology, capital, and capital improvements). In fact, it is exactly by treating the conditions and
relations of production, especially nature, geography, and labor, as forces of production within
a treadmill system of accumulation that these conditions become commodified—what Polanyi
(1944) calls “fictitious commodities”—and can then be priced, circulated, and, most important,
exploited for surplus value.
We argue that the coal industry follows this system of logic. In addition to expanding production, the industry seeks to make changes to the forces of production and exploit the conditions
needed for their continuing, accelerated capital accumulation. But, as these conditions are constantly being degraded, they must either increase production or develop new strategies of
exploitation—or both. Consequently, we agree with Foster in asserting that extractive industries
are fundamentally concerned with a treadmill-like adherence to capital accumulation by any
means necessary.
As coal communities continue to struggle for economic viability due to reduced employment
numbers and declining revenue streams, the coal industry employs a number of strategies to maintain local control and support. One strategy is to disempower local social institutions and social
relations. As Bell (2009) put it, “In addition to . . . physical and environmental injustices, there is
another less visible cost of coal: damage to the social landscape of coalfield communities” (p. 633).
Bell goes on to illustrate the process by which the coal industry breaks down the bonds of social
Blaacker et al.
capital in mining towns, disrupting important social institutions that have traditionally created and
maintained a sense of cohesiveness and stability in these towns. By breaking down the linkage
between coal mining as an occupation and social lifestyle, and severing its linkages to the union—a
connection which in the past helped to form a common social identity—the coal industry achieves
two parallel goals: one, it shatters the traditional influence of organized labor in negotiating wages
and benefits and managing mining operations in the interest of workers’ health and safety, and two,
it disrupts community allegiances between miners and other community members—a bond oftentimes as important as the unions in influencing the management of mining operations (Bell, 2009).
The coal industry then takes this strategy one step further. In addition to their role in providing
economic viability to these communities—real or perceived—the industry works to strategically
restructure the social relations and social institutions in these towns. They do this in part by pitting those who oppose their activities (e.g., environmental groups, government regulators, etc.)
against those who still maintain some allegiance to the mining operations. This allegiance is
often built on an ideological affinity for mining operations as an expression of self-reliance or
independence (Bell & York, 2010); but these allegiances can also either grow out of a fear of
further economic loss or an acceptance of the industry’s “us” versus “them” framework.
Media Campaigns and Public Perceptions of the Coal Industry
According to Bell and York (2010), media campaigns play an important role in the coal industry’s strategy to bolster public support for coal mining, subdue opposition to its human and
environmental costs, and maintain the industry’s power and profits. Although their study does
not examine public opinion or the psychological processes of individual perception, it provides
an excellent theoretical framework for explaining why people may overestimate the economic
impact of coal mining and why certain groups may differ in their judgments of the industry’s
Bell and York (2010) draw on the critical tradition in sociology, which argues that ideology is
used by elites to maintain and enhance capitalist interests (Habermas, 1975; Herman & Chomsky,
2002; Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). From this perspective, support for coal mining in West
Virginia, in spite of its severe ecological threats, is “manufactured” through the control of media,
education, and other institutions that create and maintain the dominant culture and symbolic
meanings in society. The industry gains legitimacy by encouraging coal workers that mining is
not only a job but also a prized social identity, and by convincing the local population that coal
mining is a shared community value.
More specifically, using the interest group “Friends of Coal” (FOC), the industry attempts to
propagate the notion that West Virginia’s economy and cultural identity revolve around coal
production “by appropriating West Virginia cultural icons” and “creating a visible presence in the
social landscape of West Virginia through stickers, yard signs, and sponsorships” (Bell & York,
2010, p. 129). Analyzing data from a content analysis of newspapers, the FOC website, and the
West Virginia Coal Association website, Bell and York offer a detailed account of the industry’s
ideological messaging and demonstrate the great reach and prevalence of this campaign in West
Virginia. Their central argument, in brief, is that FOC and other groups present the industry as
something much larger and more meaningful than it actually is. To investigate this claim, we
pose the following research question:
Research Question 1: Do respondents overestimate the coal industry’s economic impact?
Bell and York (2010) argue that the coal industry’s commercials, billboards, and other advertisements target West Virginians in particular by using the state’s cultural icons. Carefully scripted
messages are conveyed by iconic spokespersons, such as football coaches from West Virginia
University and Marshall University, NASCAR driver Derek Kiser, professional bass fisherman
Organization & Environment 25(4)
Jeremy Starks, and retired Air Force General “Doc” Foglesong. These men tie the coal industry
to what Bell and York refer to as West Virginia’s “winner icon,” “outdoorsman icon,” and
“defender and provider icon,” while also representing the “historic and present hegemonic masculinity of the region” (pp. 129-135).
We argue that it is important to recognize that these spokespeople are not just men; they are
White men. In fact, much of the imagery and messaging of the coal industry is dominated by
White spokespersons and seems to be directed at the predominantly White population of West
Virginia. As it pertains to this study, we expect that people who are affiliated with or show preference toward these icons, cultural meanings, and ethnic backgrounds are more likely to come into
contact with FOC advertising, as well as more susceptible to the various messages. To test this
reasoning, we offer the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: Respondents from West Virginia will perceive the coal industry’s economic
impact as greater than respondents from outside the state.
Hypothesis 2: Male respondents will perceive the coal industry’s economic impact as
greater than female respondents.
Hypothesis 3: White respondents will perceive the coal industry’s economic impact as
greater than non-White respondents.
Hypothesis 4: Respondents who enjoy certain outdoor activities (hunting, fishing, or hiking) will perceive the coal industry’s economic impact as greater than those who do not
enjoy these activities.
Hypothesis 5: Respondents who enjoy watching NASCAR will perceive the coal industry’s economic impact as greater than those who do not enjoy watching NASCAR.
Hypothesis 6: Respondents who enjoy watching WVU football will perceive the coal
industry’s economic impact as greater than those who do not enjoy watching WVU
Political affiliation should also be considered in a study of perceptions of the coal industry’s
economic impact. One’s economic perceptions are known to be conditioned by political preferences (Evans & Pickup, 2010). When comparing the prioritization of environmental risks over
possible economic gains, liberals are more pro-environment than political conservatives (Jones
& Dunlap, 1992). A recent Gallup poll indicated that in 2010, the percentage of Republicans who
prioritized environmental protection over energy production did not change, whereas Democrats
and Independents both showed an increase in the prioritization of environmental protection from
March to May 2010. Drawing on these findings, we offer the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 7: Republican respondents will perceive the coal industry’s economic impact
as greater than Democrats and Independents.
Hypothesis 8: Conservative respondents will perceive the coal industry’s economic impact
as greater than liberal respondents.
After receiving “exempt status” from an institutional review board, an anonymous, self-administered
questionnaire was distributed in three introductory-level sociology courses, which comprised
515 students with a broad range of majors and educational backgrounds. A total of 494 completed
questionnaires were collected, for a final response rate of about 96%. Approximately 45% of respondents were female, and 49% lived in West Virginia prior to attending the university. The majority
(85%) of respondents were White. These figures are similar to those found in a description of the
Blaacker et al.
student body on the university’s website, so the sample is considered to be fairly representative of the
undergraduate population as a whole. County-level data were entered for respondents who provided
this information on their response sheets. Although the initial sample contained 242 West Virginia
residents, only 213 (88%) of these residents provided county-level data to be used in these analyses.
Of these respondents, slightly more than 63% grew up in one of the 10 largest coal-producing counties as listed by the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training.
As suggested above, the survey asked respondents for demographic and personal characteristics, including place of residence before enrolling in college (city, county, state), length of residence if residing in West Virginia before enrolling in college, gender, race/ethnicity, political
affiliation, and political ideology. To measure the respondents’ preference for the West Virginia
cultural icons described by Bell and York (2010), respondents were asked to describe their level
of agreement on a 4-point scale, ranging from completely disagree to completely agree, with the
following statements:
I enjoy hiking along wilderness trails.
I enjoy fishing.
I enjoy hunting.
I am a fan of West Virginia football.
I am a fan of NASCAR racing.
The perceived economic impact of the coal mining industry on West Virginia was measured
using four questions. Given the specialized nature of these issues, respondents were asked to use
their intuition to give general estimates. Each question was prefaced by the phrase “if you had to
guess,” and followed by five response options. An abbreviated version of the questions follows:
•• What percentage of West Virginia workers is directly employed by coal mining companies? (a. 5% or less; b. 6% to 10%; c. 11% to 20%; d. 21% to 40%; e. 41% or more).
•• What percentage of the total earnings of West Virginia workers in 2010 came from jobs
in coal mining companies? (a. 5% or less; b. 6% to 10%; c. 11% to 20%; d. 21% to 40%;
e. 41% or more).
•• How many coal mining companies have their headquarters located in West Virginia? (a.
0; b. 1 or 2; c. 3 or 4; d. 5 or 6; e. 7 or more).
•• What percentage of the total tax revenues collected by the state come from the coal
industry? (a. 5% or less; b. 6% to 10%; c. 11% to 20%; d. 21% to 40%; e. 41% or more).
A single index was created to summarize the respondent’s answers to these questions, with
higher scores indicating greater perceived economic impact. The distribution of scores ranged
from 6 to 20 and was approximately normal. The mean was 14.72 with a standard deviation of
3.02. Cronbach’s alpha for the scale was .67, which indicates an acceptable level of reliability,
though improvements should be made for future use.
Perceptions of the Coal Industry’s Economic Impact on West Virginia
As shown in Figure 1, perceptions of the coal mining industry’s contribution to West Virginia
employment far exceed the actual figures. Among the 494 respondents in the sample, less than
2% of them reported a roughly accurate estimate of the percentage of jobs directly provided by
the industry. Even though coal corporations only employed 3% of the workforce, the great
Organization & Environment 25(4)
majority of respondents believed that coal generated at least 21% of the state’s jobs. One in four
respondents estimated coal’s employment contribution at 41% or more—an approximation that
is almost 14 times greater than the actual number.
Figure 1. If you had to guess, about what percentage of West Virginia workers is directly employed by
coal mining companies?
Respondents were also asked to estimate the percentage of total wages that came from coal
mining in 2010. As Figure 2 indicates, roughly 86% estimated the amount to be greater than 10%
of the total. With the actual figure standing at around 7%, we see again that the great majority of
our sample overvalued the financial contribution of the coal industry to West Virginia workers.
A full quarter of the respondents believed that total wages from coal mining accounted for more
than 41% of the state’s total wages—a figure nearly six times greater than the actual number.
Figure 2. If you had to guess, about what percentage of the total earnings of West Virginia workers in
2010 came from jobs directly provided by the coal industry?
Blaacker et al.
In Figure 3, we illustrate the results from the survey in which we asked respondents to estimate
the total tax revenue generated by coal production as a percentage of the total taxes collected by
the state. Compared with the previous questions, a larger proportion of respondents gave estimates
within the correct range, with nearly 30% of individuals falling in the range of 11% to 20% (the
actual amount is 16%). However, 50% overestimated the coal industry’s contribution, including
nearly 17% estimating revenues in excess of 40% of the total tax base for the state. On the other
hand, nearly one quarter underestimated coal’s contribution to state revenues.
Figure 3. If you had to guess, about what percentage of the total tax revenues collected by the state
come from the coal industry?
Figure 4 shows results on the perceived number of coal companies headquartered in West
Virginia. Given that there are five companies headquartered in the state, roughly one third of
respondents were below the actual figure, one third gave an accurate response, and one third
were above the true number. Nevertheless, as a response to Research Question 1, data from the
four perception questions generally reflect a notable overestimation of the coal industry’s economic importance to the state.
Figure 4. If you had to guess, about how many coal mining companies have their headquarters located
in West Virginia?
Organization & Environment 25(4)
Group Differences in Perceptions of the Coal
Industry’s Economic Impact on West Virginia
With a few interesting exceptions, most of our hypotheses were not supported by bivariate
analyses. Independent-samples t tests were conducted to compare the perceived economic
impact scores across various groups, as designated by the personal and demographic characteristics discussed in the theoretical framework. As shown in Table 1, respondents from West
Virginia did not perceive the coal industry’s economic impact as significantly greater than
respondents who grew up outside the state. Among the West Virginians, those from coal-rich
counties reported estimates that were roughly equivalent to those from other counties. Scores on
the index were also about the same among men and women, NASCAR fans and non-NASCAR
fans, football fans and non–football fans, as well as among people of opposing political affiliations and ideologies.
As also displayed in Table 1, there was a significant difference between the perceived economic impact scores of White and non-White respondents, with Whites reporting higher estimates than non-Whites. The questions designed to measure the respondents’ affiliations with the
“outdoorsman icon” also produced significant findings. Supporting Hypothesis 3, those who
reported enjoyment of hunting, fishing, and hiking judged the coal industry’s economic impact
as significantly greater than those who suggested that they did not enjoy these activities.
Significant relationships were found when testing each variable separately, as well as when combining the three variables in a single index (r = .145, n = 448, p < 0.01).
Table 1. Significance of Personal Characteristics and Demographic Factors on Perceived Economic
Impact of Coal Mining in West Virginia
Where did you grow up?
West Virginia
Other state
If from West Virginia, what county?
Top-10 coal producing county
Other county
Enjoy hunting?
Enjoy fishing?
Enjoy hiking?
t Value
Blaacker et al.
Table 1. continued
Enjoy watching NASCAR?
Enjoy watching football?
Political affiliation
Political ideology
t Value
a. An F test was run for this variable, given the fact that it has three categories.
With technological advancement, the coal industry in West Virginia has succeeded in expanding
coal production even as it diminishes its demand for labor. But the story of coal in this region
represents only one case of a much larger social phenomenon. The same dynamic can be seen
in other industries such as logging and agriculture and fits, conceptually, within the treadmill of
accumulation model (Foster, 2005; Foster et al., 2010). Producing less economic viability at the
local level, the coal industry, like many others, has moved to other strategies to legitimize its
Building on the neo-Marxian tradition, Bell and York (2010) describe how the coal industry
in West Virginia has constructed and maintained an ideology that legitimizes the job of coal
mining and the industry as a whole. Coal industry advocates—the FOC organization in
particular—have inundated the state’s social arenas with pro-coal advertisements and shaped
their messages to appeal to the state’s cultural and historical viewpoints. One of the industry’s
main aims, according to Bell and York (2010), is to convince West Virginians that they are, as
in the past, economically dependent on the coal industry and that coal mining jobs are essential
to the state’s financial stability.
In our study, we attempted to test the underlying assumption in Bell and York’s (2010) critical analysis by comparing people’s perceptions of the coal industry’s economic impact to the
actual state of affairs. Though still in an exploratory phase, much of our research supports their
perspective. On multiple indicators, our respondents greatly overestimated the economic importance of the coal industry in West Virginia. As one example, roughly 98% of our sample reported
an inaccurately high estimation of the industry’s contribution to employment. The number of
jobs created by the coal industry (22,000) is quite small compared with other West Virginia
industries, such as education and health services (123,600), retail trade (85,800), and leisure
and hospitality (72,100).9 To put the coal industry’s 22,000 jobs in perspective, one might
‑consider the fact that Walmart, a single grocery store chain, directly employees 12,861 West
Virginians and supports 17,568 additional supplier jobs in the state.10
Organization & Environment 25(4)
Another goal of our study was to investigate whether and why estimates of the industry’s
economic impact may vary across groups. Overall, White respondents perceive the coal industry
to have greater economic contributions than non-Whites. This finding may suggest that Whites
are more likely to be targeted by FOC media campaigns. This makes sense given that, according
to the 2010 Census, 94.1% of the West Virginia population is White. Given the predominance of
White spokesmen for FOC, White audiences may also identify with these men and their messages more so than non-White audiences. One further explanation may be that African American
workers and their families were disproportionately affected by the decline in labor demand as the
coal industry mechanized its operations and cut jobs. As Lewis put it, “As miners were replaced
by machines . . . blacks were nearly eliminated from the mine force entirely” (Lewis, 1987,
p. xii). This type of discrimination would likely lead non-Whites to be more aware of the industry’s contracting economic impact, in addition to its social injustice.
Our data also confirmed that respondents who reported enjoyment of outdoors activities,
including hunting, fishing, and hiking, offered higher estimates of coal’s economic impact than
those who were not involved in these pursuits. Following Bell and York’s (2010) logic, we suggest that enthusiasts of these rugged pastimes are more likely than others to be targeted by the
FOC, as well as more likely to identify with their messages and spokesmen. Hunters and fishers
may also share common values, such as individualism, entrepreneurialism, and other views that
lead them to assume that coal companies and other private interests play a leading role in society,
which, in turn, would elevate their economic perceptions.
As in the previous case of White versus non-White perceptions, our thinking here is preliminary and speculative. On one hand, we regard these findings as interesting and worthy of followup studies. We find it especially intriguing that having a preference for each of the three outdoors
activities in our survey (hunting, fishing, and hiking) was significantly associated with higher
perceptions of economic benefit. On the other hand, our data cannot reveal the causal mechanisms
behind these significant correlations. Further research, especially studies employing experimental
designs, are needed to explain why White respondents and those who affiliate with hunting and
other outdoor activities report higher estimates of the coal industry’s economic impact.
The nonfindings of this study were also quite interesting. Women, contrary to our expectations, actually scored slightly higher than men on the economic perceptions index. This could be
due to the fact that both men and women play a part in supporting the “hegemonic masculinity”
of the region. The FOC spokesmen may indeed represent the masculine “winner icons” of West
Virginia football and NASCAR racing, but the fans of these activities did not seem to align their
views with FOC messaging any more so than those who did not enjoy these events. This could
be due at least partly to the fact that the coal industry has penetrated the “lifeworld” of university
students by providing funding not only for athletic events but for various spaces and events
throughout the region as well.
Political and ideological affiliations also failed to predict economic perceptions. Although the
difference between West Virginia residents and nonresidents was in the expected direction, it was
minute and insignificant. We also found that economic perceptions were roughly equivalent
among those West Virginians who grew up in high-coal production counties and those from other
regions of the state.
The cause of these nonfindings deserves some further conjecture. First, as a methodological
note, the index used to measure economic perceptions was relatively small at four items, and the
scales were quite narrow. Our 5-point Likert-type scales may not have allowed us to account for
extreme views, thereby limiting the variance in responses. Using more questions and wider
scales may have produced greater variability in economic perception, and perhaps greater differences between groups. Second, the homogeneity of our sample should also be noted. Although
the university where we collected data was ideal in some respects (for instance, the student body
Blaacker et al.
happens to be composed of nearly equal shares of in-state and out-of-state students), the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of undergraduate college students have less variability than the
general population. Although half our sample grew up in states outside West Virginia, many of
them came from the surrounding region, which is within the reach of FOC activities. There are
FOC branches in other states including Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky, which has sponsorship from its FOC branch for state rival basketball tournaments. Although Pennsylvania does not
have a FOC branch, there is another coal advocacy group (F.O.R.C.E.) that was founded in 2004
and seems to play the same role that FOC plays. The lack of difference between in-state and outof-state respondents may also be due partially to the fact that all respondents were exposed to
living in West Virginia during the time of their college enrollment.
Although a nationally representative sample may produce greater variance in the data and
somewhat larger differences across key social groups, perceptions of the coal industry’s economic impact are likely being influenced by congruous social and psychological forces. Because
of the fact that people do not need to know the details of coal extraction in order to benefit from
its use, our respondents may not have much knowledge, interest, or personal involvement in
issues related to coal extraction. As a number of studies have shown, people who are less involved
in a given social issue are less likely to scrutinize messages about it or question the expertise and
trustworthiness of sources (Chaiken, 1980; Johnson & Eagly, 1989; Petty & Cacioppo, 1990).
Following this line of thinking, our respondents may be especially susceptible to the symbols and
advertisements of the FOC and other homogenized media representations of the industry. Among
other scholars, Herman and Chomsky (2002) argued convincingly that ideological homogeneity
can be achieved by restricting the information provided via mass communication.
The estimates of our respondents may have also been shaped by popular stereotypes of West
Virginia, where coal was indeed the “backbone” of the economy at one point in time. If our respondents’ schemas of the state and its citizens involve images of coal miners and coal production, the
general overestimation of this industry’s importance would not be surprising. Moreover, if our
respondents used such a stereotype, they would likely exhibit a confirmatory bias as they collected
more information about the coal industry in the course of their studies and personal experiences in
West Virginia (Higgins & Bargh, 1987; Snyder & Swann, 1978). Both the dominance of FOC in
media and the wide use of stereotypes would produce a general overestimation of the coal industry’s economic impact while moderating the difference in perceptions across groups.
In closing, we wish to comment on this study’s contribution to the literature, and its social and
political implications. As previously discussed, the risk perception literature is already well
developed and represents a growing area of research (Slovic, 2004). One of its interesting findings holds that perceived benefit is often negatively correlated with perceived risk. The greater
one judges the positive effects of a risky situation, the lesser one perceives the potential dangers.
Although this line of research includes perceived benefit in the equation, the emphasis has
remained on risk perception as the dependent variable, and the antecedent conditions of perceived benefit have been largely ignored. One of the underlying aims of our study is to reverse
this disregard. Given the fact that people’s economic perceptions may shape their willingness to
tolerate the hazards of coal production, we encourage greater public attention and scholarly
research on how people perceive the coal industry’s contribution to the economy of West Virginia
and other states in the region.
Placing more emphasis on the real and perceived benefits of the coal industry represents a
new approach to informing the public about industrial land use. In the past, the risk perception
literature brought attention to people’s biased, inaccurate, or problematic understanding of the
dangers that surround them, including pollution and other hazards associated with industrial
production. As a result, many of these studies encouraged public officials and government agencies to better educate and inform citizens about risk. For this reason, we have often heard calls
Organization & Environment 25(4)
for stronger warnings on consumer products, more effective training for workers in hazardous
occupations, and more town hall meetings and mass-mediated information to educate the public
about the environmental risks of local industrial sites.
The present study advocates for more public communication about the risks as well as the
benefits of coal production in West Virginia.11 Our research reveals that many people highly
overestimate the industry’s economic contribution. We urge policymakers to better educate people about the limited financial benefits of coal. Public officials, scholars, and opinion-leaders
should also critically analyze any claim about the coal industry’s cultural closeness to West
Virginia or its relationship to the economic identity of local communities. To fully inform citizens about the wisdom of continuing or expanding coal production in West Virginia, the public
should be informed about how little “big coal” really is.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
1. While western U.S. coal producing states such Wyoming and Montana have also seen slight declines
in employment, those states have not been significantly affected economically by these declines.
2. The shift toward more productive forms of surface mining, especially MTR, is directly related to new
types of technology.
3. According the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, the total employment for the state of West Virginia for
2010 was 688,170 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012).
4. Direct employment numbers are individuals directly engaged in mining operations on site, whereas
indirect (and induced) employment numbers can include the following: (a) suppliers, (b) supporting
services (e.g., transportation and warehousing), (c) financial services, and (d) induced employment generated by the purchasing of those products and supplies needed for the mining operations (e.g., retail
services and other financial services). The estimates provided by the BBER/CBER report were generated
using regional input–output modeling system (or RIMS II) called “IMPLAN,” which is a standard model
used to estimate the total employment (direct and indirect employment) for specific economic sectors.
5. Bell and York (2010) are citing data from 2005.
6. The largest seven corporations own or have controlling interests in 27 coal companies that make up
90% of the total state coal production. The other 10% of production involves six coal companies.
7. At the time of the writing of this article, Alpha Natural Resource Services, LLC had agreed to buy
Massey Coal Company, Inc. pending federal approval.
8. We use the term monopoly capitalism as opposed to industrial capitalism or monopoly finance capitalism to avoid a detailed discussion of the albeit significant changes to monopoly capitalism as local,
regional, and national economies transitioned from manufacturing-based forms to the contemporary
system based in a combination of manufacturing, informational, and finance capitalism (e.g., postFordist, monopoly-finance capitalism) as discussed by Harvey (1989, 2003, 2005, 2010) and Foster
and Magdoff (2009) among many others. We do this for one reason: although others have already
chronicled the importance of these changes, for the purposes of our study the specific complexities of
global finance and its consequences on locally based extractive economies are beyond the scope and
intent of our current work.
9. These data come from 2012 and were compiled and made available by the state of West Virginia
(http://www.workforcewv.org/LMI/cntyform2.cfm?SelectCnty=West%20Virginia). See also the West
Blaacker et al.
Virginia data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, online at http://stats.bls.
10. These figures were provided for 2012 by Walmart online at http://walmartstores.com/pressroom/statebystate/State.aspx?st=WV
11. Following Schnaiberg’s (1980) emphasis on the “education of labor” as an important mechanism of
social change, the authors plan to bring the discussion of the economic impact of the coal industry in
West Virginia into academic settings at universities in both West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as
communicate the argument described in this article directly to the public through op-eds and other
commentary in local and national media.
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Debra Blaacker is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University with an MA in sociology. She
is interested in researching inequality and environmental effects on youth outcomes.
Joshua Woods is an assistant professor and the director of graduate studies in sociology at West Virginia
University. He has taught courses on social psychology, complex organizations, social research methods,
media and society, and introduction to sociology. He is the author of Freaking Out: A Decade of Living
with Terrorism (2012).
Christopher Oliver is currently a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at University of Kentucky. He
specializes in environmental sociology, economic sociology, sociology of labor and organizations, urban
sociology, and the sociology of regulation. He holds a PhD in sociology from Michigan State University
and BS in geography from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
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