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Devastated Area May Place Its Hopes in Nuclear Waste Storage

January 10, 1988|JIM NAUGHTON | The Washington Post

"It's new to me," Wade says.

Wade is carrying the book that tells how much relief money the union has to allocate. He calls these meetings maybe four times a year, and the guys come from all over the district to decide who gets what.

Everybody settles around an oval table in a room with no windows, except for the guys who are hoping for checks. They sit against the wall.

Donald Johnson and Robert Rippeth slouch in their chairs and the shoulders of their jackets bunch up around their ears. Both men are 40. Johnson has three kids and Rippeth has one. The company just reopened their mine, but won't give them their jobs back. It says they're too old and too thick with the union leaders.

Most Money to Families

Luckily for them, Wade has decided to allocate the money based on how many mouths a man has to feed. Guys with families get top priority. Nobody gets much, and sometimes the single guys, like Jeff Hazzard, don't get anything.

The men in this room have been through hard times before. They know coal is a boom-and-bust industry. What they don't know is whether this is a stage in a cycle or the end of an era.

"When I was in school, the main thing they taught was the three Rs," says Danny Surface, a member of the union's international executive board. "And it wasn't reading, writing and arithmetic. It was Route 75 to Detroit or Route 79 to Cleveland or Route 77 to someplace else."

Most of the men who mined coal in McDowell County have hit those roads. The rest are being urged to do so.

'Why Don't You Relocate?'

"When you go to sign up for welfare, the first question they put to you is: 'Why don't you relocate?' " Johnson says. Just about everybody in this room has asked himself that question at one time or another. Some stay for lack of options; some have family ties. Others fear poverty less than they fear a world without mountains and mountain people.

"I lived near Chicago for nine years," Johnson says. "It was a bigger rat race up there. Me and my wife both worked and when we came back all we had was a handful of receipts. I moved back down here and within three years working in the mines I had a new vehicle, new trailer and bought a lot to sit it on."

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