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Power Failure: Appalachia Plans for Life Beyond Coal

Though it’s long been a region of economic hardship, Appalachian Kentucky now faces a crisis of alarming proportions.

Harlan County, Kentucky — On his first shift in the coal mine, Brandon Farley closed his eyes to steady his nerves as the powered cart he was riding disappeared into the mountainside. A third-generation coal miner in this Appalachian corner of Eastern Kentucky, Farley began working in the mines right out of high school and kept at it for 15 years, until he was laid off in late February.

Farley, now 32 and a married father of two, worked his way up in the Appalachian coal mines to a job as an underground electrician, running the high voltage cables that power heavy, specialized equipment at the mining face. Mining is the only work he knows.

In 2010, Farley was working at the Abner Branch mine when the roof collapsed, killing his friend Travis Brock, who was 29. Farley escaped serious injury in his own years as a miner, but his hands bear a miscellany of scars from minor accidents.

“The juice is worth the squeeze,” he says, glancing at his palms with a chuckle. “I never did look at the dangers as much as I did the money.”

The money, for a while, was very good. Farley was making $25 an hour in the mines. With plenty of overtime — Farley often worked 60-hour weeks — experienced miners like him routinely made $80,000 to $100,000 a year. In Harlan County, which has about 28,000 residents, the median household income is $25,000.

Over 50 years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson toured Appalachia to kick off his “War on Poverty.” Harlan County’s poverty rate, which tracks roughly with the region’s, was then 55 percent. It remains more than double the national average, at 32 percent, although those numbers typically don’t account for government transfer payments, such as Social Security, safety net and veterans’ benefits. (In 2014, Eastern Kentucky received $13.4 billion in government entitlements, making up more than a third of the region’s income.)

Though it’s long been a region of economic hardship, Appalachian Kentucky now faces a crisis of alarming proportions. Since the end of 2008, the region has lost more than 10,000 coal mining jobs, a decline of more than two-thirds. Kentucky’s coal production is now at its lowest level since 1954, according to the state government. Other coal mining regions have been hit by the national decline in coal production, but none as hard as this one.

Locally, the collapse of coal is often blamed on President Barack Obama and environmental safeguards, which some residents say are needed to protect water, air and families. “This all began when Obama started his ‘war on coal’ — and he did,” says Farley, the laid-off miner. “If they are gonna do away with coal, why not put something back in here?”

Experts believe that the coal industry’s decline in Kentucky has more to do with the abundance of cheap natural gas and drastically cheaper coal from surface mines in Wyoming. Regardless, there is a growing sense in Harlan County that coal isn’t coming back.

After his latest layoff, Farley is now reluctantly looking for other kinds of work. “That’s all we ever done is mine coal, though,” he says. “It’s the best job I ever had.”

Farley finds the prospect of taking a significantly lower-paying job unpalatable, though even finding one is a challenge. After getting career counseling from the Harlan County Community Action Agency, Farley applied for work with railroad shipper CSX. But coal makes up the bulk of CSX’s shipping business, and the company announced new rounds of layoffs the week that Farley applied.

“It’s strange to hear the lonesome horn of a train anymore,” says HCCAA Executive Director Donna Pace. “Used to be, that’s all you heard.”

“This Country Will Suffer”

The first rail shipment of Eastern Kentucky coal rolled out of Harlan County in the summer of 1911. The rail connection brought sweeping changes to the remote, sparsely populated region. Industrialists descended, drawn by the rich coal seams that were often accessible by drift mining, or boring horizontally into the side of a mountain. Harlan County’s population exploded, from about 10,000 in 1910 to 75,000 by 1940.

Following World War II, Kentucky’s annual coal production grew steadily until peaking in 1990. It has plummeted by over half since then. Locals note that 1990 is the same year that Congress expanded the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants — the kind of plants that the state says buy 90 percent of the coal mined in Kentucky

At the same time, post-war mining operations became increasingly mechanized, reducing the number of jobs available, but raising real wages for the skilled workers who held them. In 2014, according to the state, mine operators here paid average wages of $96,500 per employee, a nearly unheard-of rate for U.S. workers without a college degree.

“These are highly skilled people,” says James Skidmore, external education director at Kentucky Coal Academy, a state-funded workforce development program. Skidmore, a gung-ho instructor with a wiry build and energetic step, spent nearly three decades as a mine foreman and equipment operator, later working as a mine safety inspector for the state.

The Coal Academy’s Harlan training facility opened in March. There, miners train on heavy-equipment simulators, which use realistic control interfaces and video projections to mimic conditions underground, where a continuous miner rig, a piece of machinery that cuts into the mining face with rotating cutter drums, can load up to 10 tons of coal a minute, according to Skidmore. Working with the heavy machinery is complex, challenging, and — at least in the safety of a well-lit, second-story classroom — pretty darn fun.

Since the training program launched 10 years ago, though, Skidmore has seen the number of young trainees dwindle as jobs disappear. At a recent session for roughly 90 miners, who were there to get required underground retraining, he asked the group how many were in their 20s. Only one hand came up, he recalls.

“We’re losing a generation,” he adds. “If mining comes back, we’re not gonna have our skilled workers. It’d be like starting an industry from scratch, and this country will suffer for it.”

Not a Good Thing to Be Chasing

Older miners in Harlan, who have ridden out booms and busts and are nearing retirement, tend to believe that coal will rise again. Those in their 30s and 40s seem much more skeptical.

“My dad worked in the mines and I’ve seen it come and go, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Arlie Lay, 42. An Army veteran with three children, Lay spent a decade working as a miner before a recent layoff from his job at Alpha Natural, which is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “Coal mining is not a good thing to be chasing.”

Young people have been leaving the region in droves. Between 2009 and 2014, Harlan County lost 10 percent of its population between the ages of 18 and 44, according to an Equal Voice News analysis. Some with mining experience target the coal fields of Wyoming. Others seek work elsewhere in Kentucky, at the Georgetown Toyota factory or Hitachi’s plant in Berea.

Many have remained, though some to be close to family, some for the deep sense of security and belonging they feel here, nestled in the hollows of the continent’s oldest mountains. But those who stay often express deep frustration at the changes in the region.

Harlan County — famous for the bloody union-organizing battles that took place here in the 1930s — was long a Democratic stronghold, like most of Appalachian Kentucky. County residents voted for a Democrat in every presidential election from 1976 to 2000. But during the last presidential election, Harlan tilted 81 percent in favor of Republican Mitt Romney.

In a single day here, I heard three separate references to a supposed “vow” by Obama to bankrupt coal-fired power plants from an interview he gave during the 2008 campaign. Although the remarks were in reference to a cap-and-trade system that was never implemented, they sparked deep anger that lingers through to the current presidential race. In the March Republican primaries, nearly every county of Appalachian Kentucky voted by double-digit margins in favor of Donald Trump, who has indicated he’d eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if elected.

But, although it would be unwise to say so above a whisper in Harlan, mining is not coming back to Eastern Kentucky, no matter who the next president is.

Environmental regulations have certainly affected the demand for coal, but other forces have played a bigger role in the evaporation of coal jobs from Kentucky. Surface mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin have opened up vast coal reserves that are much cheaper, and frequently safer, to mine than are underground deposits. Wyoming overtook Kentucky as the nation’s biggest coal producer nearly 30 years ago, in 1988, and now mines five times more coal a year.

Natural gas prices have also plummeted in recent years, due to a flood of domestic supply released by technology like fracking. Since 2012, more than 120 coal-fired power plants in the United States have either shut down or converted to natural gas, which typically burns more cleanly and costs less.

Coal industry boosters, who dominate Kentucky’s state Legislature, have seemed increasingly desperate in their efforts to stem the flow of mining jobs.

In March, the state Senate passed two bills to roll back mandatory safety training for coal miners and state safety inspections for mines.

Sen. Chris Girdler, the bill’s sponsor, said the measures would help mine operators stay afloat by offering relief from “burdensome regulations and gotcha games.”

Bridge the Gap

Although he was laid off from his last mining job in 2013, Lucas Wynn still sports a Friends of Coal license plate on his pickup truck. The specialized plates — bearing the slogan “Coal keeps the lights on!” — are ubiquitous in this part of Kentucky.

Wynn, 34, does not want to uproot his wife and 11-year-old daughter from their home, a neat yellow one-story perched on a slope outside of Evarts, Kentucky, but he does not hold out hope that mining jobs will return to Harlan County. That is why he returned to school at Eastern Kentucky University for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Like many others here, Wynn is reluctant to leave his lifelong home for opportunities elsewhere. “My generation is the one trying to bridge the gap between coal and whatever comes next,” he says. “And it may not be just one thing that comes next — it may be a lot of things.”

A spate of proposals to boost the region’s economy sit before federal and state lawmakers. As yet, none appear to have the political support to be sure bets. But this year’s federal budget, which passed in December, includes $50 million in grant funding for Appalachian coal country, to be administered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The program, dubbed the POWER Initiative, offers grants of $500,000 to $1.5 million for economic development projects sponsored by local governments, schools and nonprofit organizations in Appalachia.

Early interest in the program appears high, in spite of any antipathy toward the Obama administration. An April workshop for interested applicants, in Manchester, Kentucky, drew roughly 200 attendees, according to Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

“This is not about the old ballgame of the ‘war on coal,'” he says. “The administration has taken heed of the call to build a just transition… I think there’s going to be a big response to this.”

Since April, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, another grassroots organization, has held community dinner conversations to hear ideas from residents about building a clean energy economy in the state. Those meetings continue through May.

Its members and allies, including the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, also are raising awareness among elected leaders about new economic opportunities, environmental safeguards and helping families.

Overall, ideas to boost the regional economy have been many and varied: cultural and ecological tourism, call-center and telework jobs, arts and crafts marketplaces, farming various types of crops, mine reclamation work and starting small businesses. One program, implemented by several Eastern Kentucky utility companies, offers energy-efficiency renovations to homeowners, paid off over time through monthly electricity bills.

Brandon Farley, the laid-off miner, is now studying to take the master electrician licensing exam, and hopes to find work in that field. “Sometimes you get a little down and depressed, but you’ve got to pick yourself back up,” he says.

“I figure electricity’s always gonna be around, at least.”

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