The Afterlife of Coal

April 19, 2017

Andrew McGrath

This post is presented in this week’s series recognizing Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.

Coal mining communities in Appalachia have been framed as both victims and villains within the discourses of our emerging Trumpian late industrial narrative. Indeed, the US presidential election of Donald Trump has enacted an existential ratcheting up of the vitriolic moral divisions between “coastal elites” and “flyovers,” unhinged from the banality of previous circulations of those essentialist stereotypes. But a closer look past these inscriptions may reveal a different reality about the relationship between Appalachian coal mining communities and the environments in which they live, one that points to a more distributed agentive collusion between coal mining families, coal, and the toxins that augment the life of the matter within broader Appalachian ecosystems.

Using Karen Barad’s (2003) notion of a “posthumanist performativity,” I want to historicize people and coal in a relational ontology, a reframing of violence and victimhood that could shake some of the assumptions of ignorance about Appalachian motives in staying with coal as a livelihood in the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, and about its relatives in steel in southern Ohio. To open up these connections, I am positing a very rudimentary collection of thoughts I am calling “toxic subsistence” to describe the subject-object relational mediation in which coal communities stay-with the inherent environmental toxins and everyday affect of coal mining, despite the implicit dangers. This blog post is open-ended by necessity and represents some of the ideas I am taking with me as I finish an MA and move into a doctoral program in anthropology. It is based on some initial and preliminary archival and auto-ethnographic research concerning eastern Kentucky and southwest Ohio with the hopes of using it to sense out a dissertation down the road.


Map of eastern Kentucky Beavercreek Coal Mining Co., circa mid-twentieth century (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Donald Trump’s recent executive order to roll back Obama era EPA-administered environmental regulations augmented through the Clean Water Act has caused understandable dismay across the interdisciplinary milieu engaged in ecological and environmental research, activism, and conservation. It has also concerned growing numbers of ordinary citizens. Particularly troubling is the possible removal of dumping restrictions and carbon capture guidelines for companies engaged in various forms of coal extraction and usage across Appalachia and elsewhere. Because of the administration’s intention to make mining economically viable and to free up jobs for struggling families historically attached to the coal industries, a certain amount of anger and disbelief has been cast from the outside on those Appalachians who voted for Trump—people who are ostensibly now facing exposure to the byproducts of mining in the form of coal ash, arsenic, mercury, and a host of heavy metals cascading into the creeks, streams, and water tables of their communities. Indeed, many have pondered how these citizens can be willfully ignorant to the dangers that lurk in a doubling-down on coal. But moving beyond structural politics alone can perhaps give us a more nuanced perspective on why things feel so environmentally regressive in the mountains.

Despite obvious support for Trump across central Appalachia, local attachment to coal is not purely at the whim of political patronage. It should be noted that there is a long history of local environmental activism against coal companies, with resistance to ecological destruction of Appalachian systems working at the grassroots level. That being said, coal is foundational in central Appalachia. In fact, almost all aspects of social life can be traced to a historically vibrant and precarious interaction between humans and the materiality of coal. Coal is not a static object as it proliferates through commodity, social catalyst, and toxin while asserting an agency far beyond the mines from which it is extracted.

My family on my mother’s side comes from the once thriving company coal town of Wayland, Kentucky, an eastern hollow along the Big Sandy River valley. Like so many Scotch-Irish mountain folk, when coal veins began to dry up in the 1950s and ’60s, they migrated to Ohio to work in another stop on the carbon production line, the Armco Steel mill at Middletown, halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton. Movement for many coal families like my mother’s was fervently tied to their visceral relationships with the giveth and taketh of the land on which they lived and worked. When coal began to wither at the source, they followed its path to another iteration of carbon work to the immediate north. This was not a chaotic or monumental shift despite almost the entirety of Middletown, Ohio, having sprung up in the wake of one wane of midcentury Kentucky mining and the subsequent rise of steel production. Rather, the attachment between people and coal through multiple incarnations was pragmatic and intuitive with families following families. Coal would ebb and flow as an income source for many working families for most of the twentieth century as miners moved back and forth to maximize earning potentials across succeeding generations. As such, the lines between Ohio and the eastern Kentucky coke fields remained vital circuits for identities coagulated in tandem with the performative circulations of coal, its uses, and its needs as much as the structures it instantiated.

My grandfather was both a miner and a steelworker. A Roosevelt Democrat, he also considered himself a person of the land. He gardened religiously and spent the Great Depression planting forests across the country for the Civilian Conservation Corp. He began work underage after dropping out of school before the seventh grade. Being so immersed in carbon industries while being a stoic but passionate lover of the land was never a contradiction or source of inner conflict. While he may have had issues with coal and steel company labor practices from time to time, and was not particularly thrilled with the “company town” structure of Wayland as a community, he considered all such class discomforts the cost of tending to the human-carbon relationship that defined everyone’s lives in his world. The divide between the wealthy company men, the laborers, and the poor has been quite defined in Appalachia and work has been very much tied to identity in patriarchal and masculinist labor and familial narratives. My family was no different in this way.

But for my grandfather, coal mining was being a steward of the land. It was a hands-on, honest way to earn a living, the benefits of which were apparent in everything from electricity to automobiles to the food on his table. And it was the wax and wane of coal’s extraction that continuously set the routes of migration for him and his family. As different purities of coal enacted multiple responses in economic planning and behavior from the corporate office to the man with the pick, this resource was acting in setting the movements of people and materials across geographies and social relationships. As in the case of Middletown, Ohio, entire cities were contingent on the positional maneuvers between coal, its trajectories, and the people entangled with its circulation.

Coal has thus shaped how human life gets lived in the mountains for a century and a half. Attuning to coal and working with it is has required of its human neighbors an allegiance to depleting bodily exposures, both in the form of heavy metals directly deposited by the extraction process, and in the affective habitus generated by being in its everyday proximities. As such, rates of cancer and birth defects in central Appalachia have vastly outpaced national averages. And tobacco smoking continues to serve as a coping mechanism for the precarity of an industry that contributes to addictive tendencies. Indeed, latter-day Appalachian mining towns have been especially decimated by opiate addiction. First pushed into the mountains to mask the development of chronic pain in the miner’s bodies and facilitated by the mechanics of coal work, drugs like OxyContin have been supplanted by successive waves of heroin, insidiously anchoring the region to global drug markets.

Contemporaneous to this, the air around Middletown, Ohio, has soured with a palpable acidic stench and the city’s atmosphere browns at twilight almost every day. The steel mill’s smelting stacks light the night with a blue fire, or what my uncle once referred to as the “Middle-tucky Lighthouse.” For residents, the combining of names Middle and Tucky reterritorializes their worlds back to the hollows of eastern Kentucky, even generations removed from initial exodus. As with the spread of heavy metals into streams as mountain tops are blasted for new seams, my cousins have suggested that their town’s carbon heavy industry has manifested in the persistence of childhood leukemia and asthma and the preponderance of cancers like mesothelioma. I cannot verify their statements here, only that my cousins’ and their neighbor’s experiences growing up within the performative space of carbon toxins has left in them both affective and tactile traces.

Here I am inspired by anthropologist Eleana Kim (2016), who has taken a similar tack in addressing landmines along the DMZ in South Korea. In thinking about the unexpected distribution of matter and affect emergent in the spaces between military mines, sustainable remediation along the border with North Korea, and the rural communities and proper towns that engage with the left-behind ordinance, she developed “rogue infrastructures” as a moniker for the unforeseen sociostructural scaffoldings that assemble in the confluence of such a distributed agentive intra-action.


Blast furnace of the Armco Stell Mill (now AK Steel) in Middletown, OH (© Chris Delamea).

Stacy Alaimo (2016) gives a theoretically rich and thorough rendering of the vibrancy of the inhuman interlocutor, setting the stage for the queerest of trans-corporeal and trans-material praxis in her book Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Reinforcing Donna Haraway’s (1988) call to eject any approach to materialist theory that uses a view from nowhere, or high theory alone, Alaimo posits that engaging everyday subject-object entanglements in the Anthropocene must be situated and saturated within localized webs of intra-action. This understanding of research, activism, analysis, and the like is thus quite suited for my rudimentary observations of the spatiotemporal mattering of coal, carbon toxins, and people in Appalachia.

As with the landmines Kim engages with, coal has a penetrating toxic afterlife embodied in the waste products of the production process. Coal mines have been shown to wash acidic water into streams and rivers throughout Appalachia. Coal ash and coal sludge, two byproducts of mining and mountaintop removal practices, are known to penetrate groundwater with multiple heavy metals including mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. Residents of eastern Kentucky have long suffered the effects of exposure to such toxins and miners in particular have been experiencing health problems linked to the inhalation of toxic gases and dusts, commonly manifesting in diseases specific to the industry like black lung. Given these realities, it is perhaps difficult to understand why any such affected community would want a vibrant return of coal mining en masse as postured by the deregulatory efforts of the Trump administration.

While thorough answers for distinct motivations are hard to come by, I would like to posit that multigenerational coal mining families along the Big Sandy River valley and their cousins and kin up north in Middletown have long experienced something I am preliminarily calling toxic subsistence. Here it is important to clarify that I am not pulling from the first definition of subsistence that means “to survive on the bare minimum,” but instead using the power of subsistence as a legal term, as in “to be in effect” and “to stay with.” A toxic subsistence in this case refers to the miner, family member, and other proximal citizen’s ability to live with toxins in their everyday lives as a relational intra-actions (Barad 2003)—ones in which both person and coal matter catalyze routes of living permeated by the precarious structures of the mining industry. In this milieu, exposure and entanglement between people and coal is both a form of “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) and a vital intra-active tracing for both the formation of Appalachian identity and the persistence of toxins in the environment more broadly.

Multiple miners and former miners, steelworkers, and my own extended family members have talked to me about how they can track the trajectory of their careers via exposures to toxic gases in mines, diagnoses of respiratory illnesses, and in some cases the illnesses of their wives and children due to their proximities to coal and steel waste in the ground, drinking water, and air. Most often, each story was mundanely framed, no big deal, and just part and parcel with life in the carbon economy and incredibly common for many families, particularly those with multiple generations professionally engaged in coal-based industries. Rather than bemoaning the medical predicaments, most of those I interviewed felt a sense of accomplishment in having lived and worked with otherwise crippling conditions.

Ostensibly, I feel that the toxic subsistence I am preliminarily framing here is a localized extension of what Stacy Alaimo (2016) has called trans-corporeality. The precarious worlds of such families are partially as a result of the traces of toxins left by the permeable passing between two acting bodies: humans and coal. What’s more, those traces manifest in both the material and affective components of everyday life, leading to both the depositing of heavy metals in the bloodstreams of the exposed as well as fermenting anxiety and pride through a resonating feedback loop of identity, addiction, and inequality. With such interlacing and nonlinear lines of causality potentially undergirding life and agency in this part of Appalachia, it is hard for me to assume only a willful ignorance to the environment on the part of its peoples. Through extended fieldwork and collaboration, my hope is to further unpack some of these inconvenient environmental complexities through the lens of both a human and inhuman praxis.

Andrew McGrath
is finishing an MA in anthropology from the University of Cincinnati and will be starting a PhD in sociocultural anthropology at University of California, Irvine next fall.


Alaimo, Stacy. 2016. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28 (3): 801–831.

Haraway, Donna, J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–599.

Kim, Eleana J. 2016. “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (2): 162–187.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite as: 
McGrath, Andrew. 2017. “The Afterlife of Coal.” EnviroSociety, 19 April.

Tags: , , , , ,