During the last presidential election fewer districts in the U.S. more enthusiastically supported President-elect Trump than the coal country of eastern Kentucky. Trump made explicit appeals to miners that he would reverse the decline of the coal mining industry and bring back the mining jobs. As a result the rural coal mining counties were a real counterbalance to the anxiety about felt about in many urban areas of the country, including Kentucky’s two largest cities.
In eastern Kentucky, the miners and their families were thrilled about the promises made by Trump and the possibility of a return of the good paying jobs of the past. From their perspective he promised to undo the damage to the coal industry caused by excessive regulation and to bring back the jobs and their children, who had to leave the region to find work.
The coal industry in Kentucky has been on the decline for a number of years, with the number of miners declining to about 13,000 from a maximum of about 50,000 when my father was mining coal in the 20s, 30s and 40s.
When my father started mining coal, miners barely made a living wage. The work was all brute force and did not require the ability to read or write. The working conditions were unsafe and it was not unusual that miners developed, like my father, Black Lung. Now the miners, because of the skills required to mine coal, earn well over $70,000 dollars and the working conditions are a lot safer.
I hope the mining jobs do return. Unfortunately, I have always been forced to look at the world as it is and not how I would like it to be. As I now look at eastern Kentucky, I simply do not see coal coming back. I know that Trump has promised to bring back coal and the people of our region believe him, but that is going to be physically impossible because of factors beyond anyone’s control.
Don’t get me wrong; coal will not leave the region entirely. A small residual base of mines will continue to operate, but we will never return to the glory days of years past. I suspect that in their hearts most families in eastern Kentucky recognize that fact. However, recognizing it and accepting it for out-of-work families are two different things.
Why is it going to be physically impossible for coal to return to eastern Kentucky? In my opinion, there are three major factors that led to the decline of coal in our area: mine automation, the good coal is mined out, and EPA regulations.
The first factor resulting in a dramatic decline in coal employment is automation. Starting in about 1980 the mines began to become even more mechanized, meaning there was less need for miners. Since the 1980s, coal production in Kentucky has declined by about 19 percent while employment has fallen by about 62 percent. This drop in mine employment is directly attributable to mine mechanization.
My last visit to a mine was about two years ago in Pike County, which I visited as part of my research for a new book. Needless to say it was a real eye opener, as the last time I had visited a mine before that was in the late 1940s. The difference was like comparing an old Model T Ford to a modern Lincoln Town Car. For example, the first place I visited at the mine site was the “command hut,” which was filled with several computers that tracked the location of each worker. A wireless operation had been installed in the mine and each worker wore a monitor that indicated his location and allowed a two-way conversation between the command hut and the miner. And so it was throughout my visit.
Afterward, as I was leaving I could not help but compare the automation and corresponding safety of this mine to the one where my father worked in Floyd County. Automation, I realized, was a sword that cut two ways: it did mean fewer miners were required but it also meant greater mine safety.
The second factor affecting coal mining is that coal is not a renewable resource. Because of this, production has been declining and mining jobs disappearing. The good, easy-to-reach coal seams in eastern Kentucky are now largely mined out. As the remaining coal becomes more expensive to mine, coal companies are left to compete against cheaper fuels, including western coal, natural gas, energy efficiency, and renewable sources such as the sun and wind. For example, the cost to mine coal in Wyoming is $10 a ton, whereas the cost to mine coal in eastern Kentucky can range from $40 to $70 a ton. As a result, the busiest freight rail corridor in the country originates in Wyoming, where coal is shipped to power plants in the Midwest. It simply costs more to mine coal in eastern Kentucky because the mines have been active for well over a century and the easily mined coal is already exhausted.
The third factor is EPA regulation, primarily the Clean Power Act. Many coal miners and politicians call this President Obama’s “War on Coal” and blame him for trying to regulate coal-fired power plants, which is blamed for the loss of coal jobs. Let’s be honest with ourselves in regard to the loss of jobs. There has been some loss because power plant emission regulations, but not nearly the amount caused by automation and the gradual mining out of good coal seams. In being honest with ourselves let’s also remember that coal-fired power plants emit about 33 percent of U.S. carbon emissions and are the leading industrial source of such toxic pollutants as mercury, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide, which have been linked to a range of cancers and cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological diseases that afflict our people. Coal plant particulate pollution alone kills an estimated 13,000 Americans every year. According to a 2011 Harvard Medical School study, coal’s “lifecycle” damage costs Americans between $345 billion and $523 billion a year.
It is undeniable, however, that EPA regulation of power plant emissions and mountaintop removal mining does mean fewer coal jobs in eastern Kentucky, but it’s the job of the EPA to balance these two competing requirements: your health and the health of your children against job losses.
The “War on Coal” slogan has allowed President Obama’s critics to blame stricter environmental regulations for the sudden drop in coal employment while they have ignored the two biggest factors in he reduction of coal production. The emission regulations were put in place to protect you and your children from further damage to your health and that of your children caused by power plant emissions.
Trump says he does not believe in the science of climate change caused by planet warming due to emissions from industrial areas such as power plants, so I suspect there will be an all-out assault on environmental regulations — especially those related to power plant emissions. However, I also suspect there will be pushback in this area from those concerned with public health. I suspect the Trump administration will roll back the EPA power plant guidelines within the first year, but I also suspect this will have a marginal impact on returning coal employment to eastern Kentucky.
I hope I am wrong and that coal jobs do return to eastern Kentucky. Mining does provide an important source of revenue for our county government operation and our school system through the coal severance tax. The decline in coal production is having a tremendously negative influence on our quality of life. The coal mining jobs that have been lost are important for our people and our community because they tend to pay well and are often concentrated in counties such as ours where there are few other economic opportunities. And therein lies the problem.
Unfortunately, coal mining in eastern Kentucky is on the decline and there is not a damn thing we can do about it. Even Trump’s promise and his election will not reverse this trend.
We have got to pull our heads out of the coal pile and get to work helping ourselves, because no one else is going to.
J.T. Oney of Mayking is an Adjunct Professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.