2017-08-09 / Front Page

Letcher mines employ only 28, state report says

Coal jobs continued to fall in Letcher County in the second quarter of 2017, as only 28 men and women held mining-related jobs here June 30, state government statistics show.

The 28 jobs still filled in the underground, surface, preparation plant, and office portions of the industry represent a 49.1 percent reduction from the 55 who held mine industry here at the end of the first quarter (March 31), and a 61 percent reduction from the 89 coal jobs that were still filled the year before.

The number of coal jobs lost in Letcher County since June 30, 2016 are included in the “Kentucky Quarterly Coal Report,” a publication released August 2 by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet based on information from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA), the Kentucky Department of Revenue, and the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety.

The report also shows that Letcher County mines produced 53,064 tons of coal between April 1 and June 30, down 0.1 percent from the first quarter but up 3.2 percent since March 30.

Letcher County, once among the state’s top coal producers, now ranks 12th among the 17 eastern Kentucky counties where at least some coal is now being produced, trailing even Pulaski County. Eastern Kentucky’s top coal-producing county for the second quarter was Pike County, whose 1,067,410 tons represented an 8.4 percent reduction from the quarter before. Perry County was second with 989,954 tons produced, a five percent reduction since March 30, followed by Harlan County’s 919,666 tons, down 10.1 percent from the last quarter. Leslie County came in a distant fourth in second quarter production, with 294,821 tons mined since March 30.

Knott County suffered the largest drop in second-quarter production among the region’s top coal producing counties. Its 95,332 tons represent a drop of 158.3 percent since March 30. Coal employment in Knott County fell from 177 at the end of June 2016 to 82 a year later.

The statewide decline in coal jobs and production during the second quarter of the year illustrate the unlikely prospect of a quick turnaround for the industry despite President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to put miners back to work.

Coal mines across the state cut employment by a total of 200 jobs from April 1 through June 30 compared to the first quarter of 2017, or 3 percent, according to the report.

Employment crept up .4 percent in the state’s western coalfield in the second quarter, the report said.

Statewide production in the second quarter was 10.3 million tons, a drop of 9.9 percent from the first quarter of the year.

However, statewide production was up 4.12 percent from April through June when compared to the same period in 2016.

Total second-quarter employment was 2.8 percent lower than during the same period in 2016, however .

The state’s coal industry has taken a beating from a combination of factors, including competition for power-plant customers from cheap natural gas, efforts to beef up environmental protection, the rise of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power and lower-than-expected demand from China.

Relatively high production costs in eastern Kentucky also have hurt.

In the second quarter of 2011, there were 18,191 coal jobs in Kentucky. That number was down to 6,364 in the second quarter of this year, according to Energy and Environment Cabinet reports.

Trump has repeatedly promised to put coal miners back to work, and his administration has moved to roll back environmental rules imposed by the Obama administration.

Coal interests and supporters blame those environmental rules as the main reason for the industry’s problems, though studies have concluded that competition from natural gas played a more significant role.

Some communities have seen an increase in coal jobs since Trump took office, but the gains have been uneven, and employment is still far lower in most counties than it was a few years ago.

For instance, coal employment climbed to 217 people in the second quarter in Floyd County, an increase of 104 percent from the same period in 2016, the report said.

In the second quarter of 2015, however, the state reported 448 coal jobs in Floyd County.

Analysts have not projected a significant rebound in employment across the country.

Compiled from Mountain Eagle and Associated Press reports.

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