Sustainability comes to coal country

Published: May 9, 2013

J. Eric MathisJ. Eric Mathis

The small Appalachian community of Williamson, W.Va., has largely been known for coal mining. Now, the town is now gaining recognition for its “Sustainable Williamson” campaign. The program’s executive director, J. Eric Mathis, recently spoke as part of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Speaker Series in a talk sponsored by the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and the MIT Energy Club.

With “coal country” in decline, the area has seen its share of poverty, high unemployment, and population flight. Mathis, a solar energy entrepreneur and board member of the Williamson Redevelopment Authority, is working hard to galvanize the community with a focus on renewable energy industries and a health and wellness campaign.

In order to succeed, Mathis said, sustainability needs to be “depoliticized.”

“We don’t just engage in debate,” Mathis said. “What we are doing in Central Appalachia right now is working on real world, concrete projects.”

The Sustainable Williamson campaign focuses on six major themes: healthy communities, energy optimization, sustainable construction, sustainable tourism, integrated education, and food systems.

A Federally-Qualified Health Center (FQHC) will function as an “anchor institution,” Mathis said. An FQHC is a community-based organization that provides health care, regardless of ability to pay. In the meantime, a number of community members have started wearing pedometers and have partnered with a health center in California. Residents in both communities are tracking their steps and virtually walking toward one another.

The campaign is already providing health benefits. “It’s actually having real world effects on reducing the occurrence of diabetes in Williamson,” Mathis said.

Re-evaluating the food systems has meant forming farmer’s markets, community gardens, and “post-mine land use” that repurposes old mine sites as fruit orchards. “We really emphasize market development,” Mathis said. “A lot of [other] farmer’s markets say they are engaging in sustainability … but they keep running back to the government for grants. I’m not knocking that, but I think it should be used as seed money as opposed to subsidizing a program.”

A third effort, sustainable tourism, is almost a no-brainer for a rural area with rock climbing, rafting, hiking, and ties to the West Virginia-based Hatfield-McCoy feud, arguably the most famous family feud in American history.

Sustainable Williamson is also working with universities across the country as part of its integrated education initiative, establishing service learning projects through internships and action-learning based education. The community is actively seeking partnerships with institutions such as MIT, Mathis said.

Mathis hopes that sustainable construction will guide the construction of Appalachia’s first LEED-certified platinum building. With all of its efforts, the town is becoming a training hub for leadership, energy, and green environmental design, he added.

“We are hoping that Williamson will become a national—and hopefully international—model of sustainability,” he said.