Laid-off miners Jeff Combs and Ryan Trent in Hazard, Kentucky.
Laid-off miners Jeff Combs and Ryan Trent in Hazard, Kentucky. - 
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It’s no secret that coal is on the outs in the United States. The country’s natural gas boom and environmental regulations are dethroning King Coal after decades of rule in the electricity market. That should be good for the climate, but the transition to natural gas and renewables has human costs. Right now Central Appalachians are taking the hit, forcing communities there to contemplate a future beyond coal.

In eastern Kentucky, coal mining has been the lifeblood of the economy for well over a century. Now it's facing what might be termed a “low coal” future. Much of the easy-to-get coal has already been mined out. What’s left is harder to get, so production costs are higher. “The coal seams, they’re getting smaller,” says 30-year-old Ryan Trent, a laid-off miner who started at age 19. “You’ve got strata in between it, which is not full coal. So the more rock you cut,  the less coal you’re getting.”

That’s partly why Appalachian coal is having a hard time competing, not just against cheap and cleaner natural gas, but against newer, more efficient coal mines in the West’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest’s Illinois Basin. Coal companies also blame stricter EPA water quality standards, which they argue has effectively halted permits for Appalachian strip mining. 

The overall effect has been a wave of production slowdowns, mine closures and rising unemployment in the last two years. The median unemployment rate for eastern Kentucky’s top 10 coal-producing counties is 15.05 percent. That statistic includes Trent, who was earning $24.50 an hour, non-union, and says coal mining “is in his blood.” He’s been looking for another mining job since he was laid off in December 2012. “I’ve got the softest hands in eastern Kentucky, I’ve been doing so many dishes,” he jokes.

Trent and other miners are used to the ups and downs of the coal business, but Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, says this time is different. “To lose almost 7,000 jobs in almost 18 months is a catastrophe,” he says. “It’s a huge economic collapse. Folks to some degree feel like they’re under cultural assault.”

The realization that this could be a permanent decline in what’s been the lifeblood of the region is just now beginning to settle in, after years of warnings and, some would say, denial. John Haywood, owner of a tattoo parlor in Whitesburg, called The Parlor Room, says some of his more regular customers were coal miners, but many have stopped coming in.  “They used to come in once a month, even twice a month,” Haywood says. “Tattoo collectors that were willing to sit for a long time and get covered up.”

“Coal miners are our middle class.” That’s a common refrain in eastern Kentucky, where more than a quarter of the people live in poverty. According to Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, starting salaries in the mines average $65,000 and the jobs don’t require a high school education.

Communities are just now beginning to seriously discuss economic alternatives. Some blame the slow start on the “War on Coal” rhetoric, saying it’s distracted attention from preparing for a “low coal” future. Others say political leaders have spent coal severance tax money on basic services instead of diversifying the economy. 

Regional leaders who gathered in the mining town of Hazard to talk to Marketplace stressed they didn’t believe there was one single thing that could “replace” coal. They hope a new bi-partisan effort called SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) will come up with some alternatives. The region has already been targeted for special assistance from the federal and state government, but residents fear the money won’t be enough.  

“I mean, what happened in Detroit when that industry was threatened,” says Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.  “There was a lot of government support. Lots of it.”

Jennifer Bergman, JobSight Services Director at the program, says the region should develop an “entrepreneurial” economy, “but we need people with money to spend to have that entrepreneurial base.”

Many here say the region should take advantage of its cultural distinctness and build an economy based on central Appalachian folk arts and crafts. Previous efforts to develop that have fallen victim to politics and lack of funding. Doug Naselroad, master artist in residence at the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, says the incomes generated might not rival coal’s, but that’s not the point. “What we’re trying to create is something sustainable and that’s rooted in the culture and tradition of the people here, instead of something which just plunders the land and moves on.”

Dan Estep, 56, a former coal miner, is experimenting with that idea. He’s teaching blacksmithing and knife-making at the Kentucky School of Craft and selling his wares at craft fares. He doesn’t make much money, but says he’s happy to have a skill that’s “marketable.” “I’m grateful to live in this country,” Estep says.  “Every day’s an opportunity.”

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Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner