06/22/2014 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Hip hip, hooray for coal: Embattled industry gets parade in ancestral mine area

MADISON, W.Va. - Elsewhere it's being vilified, regulated and undercut by competition.

Here, coal gets a parade.

A hilly West Virginia county that prides itself as the cradle of American coal concluded five days of festivities last week with a sirens-wailing, lights-blazing demonstration of love for an embattled industry.

As it does every year, the event had festival princesses waving as they rolled past spectators. But at this year's West Virginia Coal Festival, some storm clouds hovered ominously over those tiaras.

The source of concern was stamped across the front page of the local paper — it's called the Coal Valley News, and it warned of an 8.3 per cent year-over-year decline in employment in the industry.

In Boone County, where coal was first discovered in 1742, it's more than just a combustible, carbon-belching combination of compounds that powered global industrialization. Here, it's personal.

Delores Cook is a coal miner's daughter — one of thousands in this part of Appalachia. She's also a coal miner's sister. And, since 2012, she's been a coal miner's widow. She's among the volunteers at the Coal Heritage Foundation Museum.

Her late husband's presence lingers here, his old hard-hat and gloves now being worn by a mannequin in miners' gear.

The museum carries other, darker memories of the industry's past. There's a memorial wall to those killed on the job, including 29 who died nearby in a single disaster in 2010. There's the old, illegal currency miners were paid with — good for use only at the local company store. And then there are the rusty old guns and bullets from the bloody clashes when workers unionized.

Area miners face new challenges now: a double-whammy, from federal climate-change regulations and the growing competition from cheap, abundant natural gas.

Cook said the economic concern was felt at this year's festival. Visitors to the town, she said, held on to their wallets a little tighter at the fairground, spending less at the food stalls and open-air market.

"They don't know if their mines will shut down," Cook said.

"They may need that money for bread and milk."

The overall picture for coal isn't actually that dire. U.S. production is currently projected to dip only slightly, bolstered by increased demand from abroad. But this ancestral industry hub is taking a disproportionate hit.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts production will have declined nearly 50 per cent from 2011 to 2021 in the land of Daniel Boone and the Hatfields and McCoys, as Central Appalachia's extensively mined, higher-cost reserves lose market share.

The issue is politically charged.

It's a factor in this year's tug-of-war for the U.S. Senate. The Obama administration's opponents accuse it of waging "war on coal." Coal-state seats up for grabs include one right here, in West Virginia, where the incumbent Democrat is retiring.

Democrats traditionally fare well here. But not Barack Obama. The president lost the state by 27 percentage points in 2012.

That might explain why the Democratic candidate for the Senate last weekend used the loudest and most colourful conceivable tactic to distance herself from a carbon-regulating, gun-control-pushing president.

She marched down Main Street carrying a rifle Saturday, during the parade dedicated to coal. She fired it into the air — twice — and just in case anybody had failed to notice the eardrum-rattling booms and the puffs of smoke above the centre of town, Natalie Tennant delivered a little play-by-play.

"I'm about to fire a rifle," said Tennant, the state's secretary of state.

Most polls have her down by double-digits.

Both she and her Republican rival were at the festival. The parties had stands set up near the ferris wheel and merry-go-rounds. They were competing for converts with a nearby stall that offered spiritual salvation, illustrated by flames undulating from the bowels of hell. The next two stalls were selling purses and baseball caps.

As for more terrestrial prophecies about excruciating heat, the residents have heard the warnings. And several did express concern about climate change.

"They talk about the global warming — I believe in it," said Joy Underwood, the festival president and a retired school principal.

"But I don't believe coal's the only culprit."

Underwood maintained that cars are a bigger cause. Delores Cook, for her part, pointed to China and its rising emissions. One retired coal miner echoed that sentiment.

New regulations would only shift coal production to China, Australia and Mongolia, said Ronny Justice. A committed Democrat, Justice was less laudatory toward Obama, whom he accused of pushing jobs overseas: "He don't know anything about coal mining."

He defended the industry — which employed him for 37 years, as well as his dad, his three brothers, his maternal grandfather and his dad's grandfather.

He refrained from blaming it for a chemical spill this year at a coal-washing facility, which cut off water to 300,000 residents, left people with rashes, and forced some to bathe in washtubs like the old ones Justice used while growing up.

He credited coal mining for providing $27-an-hour jobs in a region where there aren't many.

"If you're not a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher, you're not going to make that kind of money here — unless you own your own business," Justice said.

Justice also volunteers at the coal museum. He settled in at the front desk on Saturday, as Cook prepared to head to the festival.

Before she left, the retired school teacher provided a tour. While offering a lesson on the industry's past, she speculated warily about its future.

"If we lose coal here in Boone County we've lost our way of life," Cook said.

"God has put this coal here in these hills for us to use."

She pointed out her husband's old gear. She straightened out Dennis' old gloves.

Then she left to join the parade.