Miller Center

Jonathon Free

History, Duke University

Redistributing Risk: The Political Ecology of Coal in Late-Twentieth Century Appalachia

Free photo

Free has been selected as the Miller Center/Hagley Library Dissertation Fellow in Business and Politics.

Jonathon Free’s dissertation traces the U.S. coal industry’s increased reliance on surface mining in the late twentieth century. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Congress passed new mine safety regulations that significantly lowered the number of deaths from explosions, roof-falls, and other underground disasters. Coal companies responded to safety legislation by expanding surface mining operations, which were less accident-prone but more environmentally destructive than underground mines.

This redistribution of the risks of mining had profound implications for the political culture of coal mining communities. In Appalachian states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where coal companies traditionally played a major role in the local economy, the mining jobs that remained became more precious, as did the few mountains left untouched by surface mining operations. Meanwhile, the risks of surface mining became more acceptable to many coalfield residents as the industry depicted it as a way to provide the energy that the nation needed while also improving both the aesthetic quality and economic attractiveness of the land. As a result, the debate over surface mining became a point of fracture in increasingly divided communities.

While scholars of environmental policy, American business, or working-class communities have tended to analyze the history of each subfield separately, this project draws on the history of capitalism, critical geography, and interdisciplinary studies of regulation to argue that the shared history of policymakers, business people, and workers did not unfold in insolated silos. 

Fellowship year: 2016

Mentor: Richard White, Stanford University

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