The fight over green jobs in coal country: “We can become important again”

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Former coal miner Eric Ritchie, who now works in renewable energy, shows CBSN's Adam Yamaguchi the view from atop a 300-foot-tall wind turbine in West Virginia. CBS NEWS

Clinging to the top rungs of a 300-foot ladder, Eric Ritchie pauses to catch his breath. Surrounding him, and disappearing below, the curved walls of a long, narrow silo echo his heavy breathing.

Continuing up, he arrives at what feels like the curved fiberglass walls of a mini submarine. The chamber shudders and sways back and forth. As he swings open the heavy door of the top hatch, the space is flooded with bright sunlight. Ritchie clips his safety harness to a steel rail, hoists himself up though the hatch and scrambles out onto the narrow, sloping roof of a massive wind turbine.

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“I spent nine years looking through the windshield of a piece of equipment, and I traded it in for this,” he says, scanning the 360-degree views of rolling West Virginia hills. “I think I made a pretty good trade.”

The legacy of coal in West Virginia remains powerful. Many generations of families grew up with coal salaries putting food on the table, and coal is still the backbone of the state’s economy. While thermal coal, used to generate electricity, has been in steady decline, metallurgical coal, needed to make steel, is faring better. Increased demand internationally has even led to a few new coal mines opening in the past year.

However, continued advancements in mining technology and automation does not bode well for mining employment, even if production were to increase. On average since 1950, mining jobs have declined at a rate nearly three times the decline in coal production.



For Eric Ritchie, that reality gives him peace of mind that he made the right choice.

“I’ve got no interest competing with the coal mine,” he said. “You know, I’ve got an opportunity right here that I can earn a living for my family and produce some energy, so that’s my main concern.”

He thinks there’s “no question” West Virginia can succeed.

“We have everything we need to be a competitor to some of the Midwest states — Texas and some of those states that are going largely renewable. West Virginia is just getting its foot in the door. We have a bright future in this state as long as we get the support.”

He adds, “We can become important again. Absolutely.”

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By HUNTER HOLCOMBE CBS NEWS