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Hollowed Mountains, Now Hollowed Towns: Coal in Eastern Kentucky

HARLAN—People in Eastern Kentucky are used to the ups and downs of a coal-based economy. Prices plummet. Production slows down. Coal miners get laid off. Several months later, prices rise. The phone rings. Miners pick up their helmets and go back to work.

We're in one of those slumps now—but, this time, things are different. In the hardest-hit counties, the bumpers of heavy-duty Ford pickup trucks still host Friends of Coal license plates, next to stickers telling other drivers that coal keeps the lights on. But the winding mountain roads are a little quieter.

You can drive miles without seeing one of the lumbering coal trucks that, for years, carried away the region’s resources.

Coal is embedded into the culture and image of Eastern Kentucky, but the industry is declining in the region. And it's declining permanently. The coal miners—who've known coal through the generations—are being left behind.

Kentucky political leaders largely resort to finger-pointing and rhetoric. 

The coal miners, however, are left with few options but to adapt.

Why does Louisville have so many fish fries?

Go West

About 150 laid-off coal miners sit in the convention center in downtown Harlan. Nearly all are men, many still wearing the uniform from their previous job: heavy pants and shirts with orange reflective stripes. The men stare straight ahead, waiting for their number. Every few minutes, a woman comes out and calls.


They're waiting to interview for coal mining jobs. But not here in Harlan. Eastern Kentucky mines aren’t hiring. These jobs are a five hour drive away at one of Patriot Coal’s mines in Western Kentucky.

Garry Cox is one of the youngest men in the room: 24, and wearing a camouflage-print hat with “Friends of Coal” on it.

"Hoping to find a job.  I’ve exhausted everything in Eastern Kentucky," says Cox, who lives in Harlan.

"It’s time to go west and hope for the best.”

Cox spent three-and-a-half years as an underground coal miner, until he was laid off about a year ago. He’s been looking for work since. He even went back to school for an associate’s degree. But his unemployment runs out this month, and he says he can’t afford to keep going to school.

“Going west is my last resort,” he says. “But it’s come to it, there’s nothing here. I don’t know if I’m more scared of not getting a job or getting a job.”

Wesley Smith is in the same position, even though he’s farther along in his career than Cox. He’s 42, and he spent 20 of those years working in underground mines. The name of his baby son—Aiden—is tattooed across his neck.

“That’s Little Wes,” Smith says, pulling up his shirt to show me a picture of his oldest son, tattooed on his chest.

Little Wes isn’t so little anymore. He’s a coal miner, too.


Until March, Big Wes was commuting two hours each way to a mine in Virginia. Then he was laid off.

“I’m a foreman, got all kinds of time and training, but can’t buy a job right now," he says.

At least not in Eastern Kentucky. And no matter how bad things have been in the region, they’ll probably get worse.

Earlier this week, residents, politicians and community leaders gathered in Pikeville to talk about Eastern Kentucky’s future. For decades, the region has been defined by the coal industry. But now, more than 6,000 coal miners have been laid off in the past two years and many of those mines have permanently closed.

From January 2012 to June 2013, U.S. power plants bought more than 41 million tons of Eastern Kentucky coal. But the first wave of stricter air regulations is scheduled to go into effect in 2016.

These regulations put new limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic pollution plants can emit. Of the 89 plants that bought Eastern Kentucky coal in the past 18 months, about one-third have announced they’ll retire or switch to gas. Several others will keep burning coal, but won’t buy coal from Appalachia anymore.

All these cuts combined amounts to a 35-percent drop in the already-reduced demand for Eastern Kentucky coal over the next two years. And these changes have already been set in motion—there is no turning back. (For complete data, scroll to the bottom of this story.)

For Wesley Smith, that’s hard to imagine.

“It’s the worse it’s ever been,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m a fourth generation coal miner, so I’ve been seeing it since the '70s, you know, that I can remember, and I’ve never seen it like this.”

Wanted: Laid-off Coal Miners

“It’s really a moving target," says Michael Cornett, who works for the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.

For the past nine months, his agency has been running an initiative called Hiring Our Miners Everyday, or HOME.

“When we first applied for our national emergency grant late last year, we were looking at around 2,000 layoffs. And that was a crisis,” he says.

The situation has worsened.

Estimates show anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 Eastern Kentucky miners are laid off. Cornett and his organization are trying to spend the $5.2 million grant they got from the U.S. Department of Labor to help laid-off coal miners and their families.

So far, they’ve enrolled 1,400.

Some laid-off coal miners go back to school, some enter apprenticeships, and some get help to relocate for other jobs. And for all of these miners, HOME picks up much of the bill.

Cornett says his organization want to help every miner who is out of work. But strangely, that's actually easier said than done.

“The reality is it’s a difficult switch in this culture to get people to consider other alternatives,” he says.

For miners to dedicate time to school or retraining programs—or to even think about moving away—they have to accept that what’s going on is different from the economic slumps of the past.

“This is a culture that is used to the coal industry waxing and waning throughout the years,” he says. “They’re not at all unaccustomed to layoffs, but typically those layoffs have been shorter and the phone would ring a lot sooner and they’d go back to work. That’s simply not happening now.”

Wesley Smith has definitely noticed a difference.

“There’s been a decline for years and years,” he says. “Like I said, I’ve been here all my life. The little town I live in up the road here, there ain’t even a street light. But there use to be 25 or 30 mines when I started in the mines in '89.

"There was mines everywhere. Every holler had a mine. Now, there’s not a mine. None.”

Even so, Smith and Cox and the others at the job fair in Harlan County say coal is still their best hope. Even if it's not coal near their homes.

While the Eastern Kentucky coalfields have been shrinking, production has been steadily growing in Western Kentucky. Demand for that coal is up, and upcoming coal plant retirements have less effect on the region.

Federal law used to favor low-sulfur Appalachian coal, but current regulations require power plants to have scrubbers to control pollution. And if every plant has a scrubber anyway, it makes more sense to burn the cheaper, high-sulfur coal from the Illinois basin, which includes parts of Western Kentucky.

So, miners like Cox and Smith are drawn westward, in hopes they can continue doing the only work they've ever been trained and paid to do.

“Where else could I go with a high school education and make $40 an hour?” Wesley Smith asks.

Coal mining is just about the only way to make a decent living in Appalachia without a college education. Garry Cox says when he was laid off with only a few years of experience, he was making nearly $25 an hour plus overtime—a decent wage anywhere, but especially in Eastern Kentucky, where the cost of living is low.

“It was fun to see all these 18, 19 year old boys with wads of cash,” Cox says, remembering the day he got hired in the mine. “‘How you do that man?’ ‘Just climb down in that hole. All the money you can stand.’”

Cox adjusted his standard of living to his miners’ salary. But now, a comparable job isn't likely to come along.

“It takes almost $2,500 a month for me to just pay my bills,” he says. “I mean, I can’t go work at Hardee's, McDonald's, Walmart. Wouldn’t have anything to drive—they’d come and take my vehicles.”

Neither Cox nor Smith want to leave Eastern Kentucky. It’s where generations of their families have lived, and they feel a connection with the mountains. Leaving is the last resort.

And as the coal industry has tanked over the past few years, it has these miners wondering who they should blame.

The Blame Game

Politicians have been quick to point fingers.

“American coal families are under attack,” says Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, in a speech on the House floor this summer. “Not from a foreign power or a natural disaster, but by an (Obama) administration that has resolutely, perversely and now overtly proposed to end coal mining and coal-fired power generation in these United States.”

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, testifying at a hearing in D.C. over the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on carbon dioxide from new power plants:

“By now it is clear that this administration and your agency have declared a war on coal," McConnell says. "For Kentucky this means a war on jobs and on our state’s economy.”

For years, rather than trying to diversify the economy or helping cushion the blow of coal’s slow decline, politicians have spouted rhetoric and fought regulations. And as the bumper stickers show, the sentiments are common in Eastern Kentucky, too. But while there's always something to gain from fiery speeches in Washington, a coal miner can only blame the government for so long before he has to figure out plan B.

Cox isn't a fan of the Obama Administration, or of the environmental and mine safety laws he sees as putting the industry in jeopardy. But from a practical standpoint, he says it's time to move on.

“I’m over the mad spell, blaming government, EPA. Being mad, it ain’t going to do nothing. It ain’t going to help,” he says. “This one little red light town can’t overthrow the feds. We’re just an itty-bitty grain of sand. So we just have to try to adjust, adapt. Just get over it and do what you have to do.”

That's what Kenneth Coley is trying to do, too. A few miles away from the job fair, Coley is studying at the Harlan County campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. He's been thinking about whether mining could rebound here, and has done some research.

“I don’t see it happening,” he says. “I got out because I’m not going to just stand still and hope for it to come back, because I don’t think it’s going to do it.”

Hollowed Ground, Hollowed Towns

We’re sitting in a common room at the college, where Coley’s working toward a degree in computer numeric control. He’s 43. He worked in the coal industry for eight years as an underground miner.

“I’ve been laid off five times in three years. And all but one have been complete mine closures.”

For Coley, what has happened to Eastern Kentucky is depressing. He lives in nearby Bell County in a house behind some of Appalachia's ubiquitous train tracks. Every day, he sees train car after train car of Kentucky coal passing by, much of it on its way out of the state. The ground has been emptied, now the towns are hollowing out, too.

“You’re talking billions of dollars leaving this area and nothing getting put back here,” Coley says. “That’s why you lose generations of young kids in this area. I don’t blame them. I left and I would tell anybody else here that was in high school, if you want to make a living, you better leave this area. Because you’re not going to be able to here.”

After being laid off again last year, Coley decided a career in the coal industry wasn’t a reliable way to support his family. So he left.

“I loved the job, and I love coal mining, but I’m done with it now,” he says. “It can’t provide a life for me and my family, I have no use for it anymore.”

This attitude is still rare among Eastern Kentucky coal miners. The messages many miners hear from their representatives in Washington make it easy to get the sense that the coal industry will rebound once a new president and Congress take over. But that’s not reality.

Many factors besides regulations have sped coal’s decline here—like low natural gas prices, shrinking coal reserves and higher production costs. There will still be coal mining to some extent in Eastern Kentucky, but a lot of this is a done deal, and no politician or policy is going to bring back coal's glory days.

Coal is a victim of the market forces these same politicians champion in healthcare and banking.

Utility companies have made multi-billion dollar decisions to convert plants to natural gas or close coal-burning units across the country. They’ve told their investors. They’ve begun the regulatory process. At this point, it’s too late to turn back. And while some are holding out hope that the state’s coal exports to countries such as India and China will help bolster flagging domestic demand, analysts have said in the past it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to fill the holes in Kentucky’s coal industry.

A Future After Coal

“The coal industry is going to be with us for a long, long time, gonna be a basic foundation of our economy in Kentucky for a long, long time.”

Those words were spoken by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear in a promotional video for the summit in Pikeville this week. This sounds like the same message we've heard before—but this time, there's a twist.

“But it’s probably never going to employ the number of people that it does now and now, people I think are finally realizing that and realizing that we have to broaden our horizons, we’ve got to develop other types of businesses,” he says.

In Kentucky, it's still surprising to hear a political leader acknowledge the reality of what’s going on in the Eastern coalfields. And Michael Cornett of HOME says the mixed messages make it harder to convince laid-off miners to consider careers outside of coal mining or outside of Eastern Kentucky.

“The best thing we can do is just to really rise above the politics of those situations and just deal with the realities,” he says. “And the realities are those miners who are out of work.”

Cornett estimates his program has 250 laid off coal miners in classroom-based training, and another 100 in apprenticeship programs with local employers. And that doesn’t count people who have already found new employment outside the coal industry.

Todd Howard was never a coal miner—he worked in coal mine permitting for his father’s company. But the company folded in 2010, and Howard decided to pursue something different. Since then, he’s been a farmer.

Howard is driving down the road in Hippo, a tiny town in Floyd County.

“This is what I consider to be a typical Eastern Kentucky farm,” he points out the window of his truck. “You got 80 total acres, and you got 79 of it hillside, that you can’t do much with.”

He laughs. Howard farms about 8 acres, spread out over four different locations, divided among land owned by him, his neighbors and friends. He pulls up to a tract he owns—a field surrounded by hills where he’s raising eight pigs. And even now, his present and former lives intersect. I watch as he breaks up a familiar-looking chunk of black rock, and passes it to the hogs through a fence.

He's feeding them coal.

“Yeah,” Howard says. “I never knew they would eat coal but apparently coal has a lot of minerals in it. They love it!”

And that's only one of the ways coal is still in Howard's life. He points up at the hills surrounding the pig pen. It’s his land, but years ago he leased it to a coal company.

“Like I said, we were still working in the coal industry, and it seemed like a good idea at the time,” he says.

Howard doesn't know whether the company will ever choose to mine there, but if they do, he'll have to move part of his farm. Now that he's in agriculture, he's concerned about the water and the effects nearby coal mining could have on his business. And, of course, there's his community.

At its recent peak in 2008, there were nearly 1,100 miners in Floyd County. Now there are 500.

“I have a great deal of respect for them, and I want to more than anything be supportive of what they’re doing,” Howard says of his friends and neighbors. “How do you do that, though? How do you get across to people that you have an issue with this industry, that it’s not going to be here 20 years from now?”

But there’s a lot of work to be done before sustainable agriculture can work on a large scale in Eastern Kentucky. Howard has been building the demand for his produce for the past four years. He also created a marketplace: the Floyd County Farmers Market.

“I certainly think that sustainable agriculture has a very bright future in Eastern Kentucky,” he says. “It’s going to take some work to take it to that next level.”

During its first summer, the market did about $600 of business. Three years later, the number was just shy of $50,000.

Optimism in Eastern Kentucky

Experiences like Howard’s are giving Eastern Kentucky residents hope as they contemplate the declining coal industry and wonder what’s next.

Some politicians are beginning to wonder, too. The goals of the summit held this week were to bring people together to discuss the region’s future, and to build public-private partnerships to improve Eastern Kentucky’s economy, education and infrastructure.

Michael Cornett of HOME says this conversation is long overdue. The region’s coal-based economy has declined so sharply that the problem can’t be ignored anymore.

“One would hope that this could have happened 20 years ago, because honestly the writing was on the wall in many ways and people either chose to believe it or not,” he says. “But those messages have been coming through loud and clear for many years. But at least we’re finally to the point where that’s going to happen now.”

But the million—or billion—dollar question is still how to revitalize Eastern Kentucky’s economy—beyond the band-aid solutions of new roads and industrial parks, which have fallen short in the past.

“There has been a real downturn in the economy, I’m not denying that,” Jenny Williams says. “I know a lot of people out there are really, really hurting. But I really think there’s also a lot of optimism and hope.”

Williams is a native of Hazard, in Perry County. She teaches at the community college there.

“And we can throw up our hands and give up or we can pitch in and try to make it a better place, we can try to attract some more industries, we can do what we need to do to try to create the infrastructure we need to bring people in,” she says.

It's a few days before Hazard's annual Christmas parade, and Williams has been out with a children’s program run by Pathfinders of Perry County, a nonprofit she chairs. Together, they've been festively painting shop windows along Hazard's Main Street in preparation for the parade.

Now, they're at the Treehouse Café, having dinner.

Treehouse is, frankly, kind of hip. Owner and Hazard Native Jennifer Noble says patrons are surprised to find hummus on the menu, local art on the walls and regular bluegrass jam sessions and open mic nights.

“I lived in Somerset and the world was, like, completely different,” Noble says. “And I came back home and I wanted to bring a part of what I saw there back to Hazard.”

Williams’ group’s efforts in Hazard are small. They aren’t focused on luring a new manufacturer to town or filling a business park. Instead, they’re building community gardens, putting art in windows and pushing for a walking and biking path along the river.

Williams says her goal is to focus on attracting two key demographics to Hazard: people who have moved away. And tourists. And also to make the town a more pleasant place to live for current residents.

“And we kind of feel like if we create spaces like Treehouse and if we have things like art walks and things to do, that it will hit all three of those target audiences and improve economic development along the way,” she says.

Whatever the solution is, Williams says it’ll have to be one that relies on multiple industries.

“The people who say that agriculture is the answer are right. The people who say that tourism is the answer are right,” she says. “There’s no one answer. We have to take a holistic approach and do lots of different things.”

One thing everyone agrees on: fixing Eastern Kentucky won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. It’ll take work and buy-in from locals and probably state and federal money, too.

Now that the summit is over comes the real test. It's up to political, community and business leaders to prove that while this isn't the end of the coal industry, this is the beginning of a thoughtful, productive discussion about the region’s future, rather than another empty PR effort.

Click here for more on the data behind this story.


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