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There Are Only 11,600 Coal Miners Left in Kentucky

Stickers on a window in Hazard, Ky.
Photographer: Frankie Steele
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Stickers on a window in Hazard, KY. Jan. 29, 2014 (by Frankie Steele/Louisville Public Media)

 

Overall coal production in Kentucky remained steady between the second and third quarters of 2014, but that’s because losses in the eastern part of the state were offset by gains in the west.

But the quarter also brought new lows for the state in terms of coal employment, according to the state's quarterly coal report. The new employment numbers—just 11,670 coal miners working in Kentucky, and only 7,229 miners in Eastern Kentucky—represent the lowest ever recorded in the state since it began keeping track in 1927.

Coal employment in Kentucky has been decreasing fairly steadily since 1979, but the latest dramatic drop started around 2011. A number of factors have affected coal production in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields: low natural gas prices; declining reserves; power plants’ ability to easily burn cheaper, high-sulfur coal from the Illinois Basin; and stricter environmental regulations have all contributed.

The situation hasn’t been quite as dire in Western Kentucky, which traditionally employed far fewer miners and produced less coal than the east. That’s no longer true—in the first quarter of 2013, Western Kentucky production surpassed Eastern Kentucky coal. Between the second and third quarters of this year, Eastern Kentucky’s coal production dropped by 4.3 percent, while Western Kentucky’s production grew by 5.2 percent.

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Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.