Whitesburg KY

Coal tonnage up here, but still low

The good news is that the amount of coal mined in Letcher County during the second quarter of 2016 was over 50 percent more than the tonnage mined during the first quarter of the year. The bad news is that only 51,422 tons of coal left the ground between April 1 and June 30, dropping Letcher to No. 12 in production among the 15 coalproducing counties in eastern Kentucky.

Those are among the findings included in a recent quarterly report from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. The report also revealed that the number of coal jobs statewide dropped by 6.9 percent from April to June of this year.

There are fewer coal jobs in Kentucky than there have been in more than 115 years, the report said.

Many coal-fired power plants across the United States have closed in response to federal environmental regulations, high production costs, low natural gas prices, and low electricity demand, which has reduced demand for Kentucky coal, the report said. “Approximately 85 percent of the coal mined in Kentucky in 2015 was used to generate electricity at 89 power plants in 15 states — located primarily in the Southeast. In 2016, Kentucky continues to sell coal to many power plants that are scheduled to close before 2019.”

In terms of second-quarter production, Letcher County ranked ahead of only Johnson (34,322 tons), Lawrence (29,965 tons) and Breathitt (19,743 tons).

Perry County has replaced Pike County as the region’s top coal-producer. Perry mines produced 861,339 tons during the second quarter of 2016, while Pike County’s mines produced 853,249 tons. Both Perry and Pike suffered production decreases of more than 20 percent. Third-place Harlan County produced 843,395 tons, a 3.8 percent production increase. Letcher also trailed Knott (311,858 tons), Bell, Martin, Leslie, Magoffin, Whitley, Floyd and Knox counties.

In western Kentucky, coal jobs dropped 7.9 percent in the second quarter of 2016 while the number of jobs in the state’s eastern region dropped 6.1 percent during that same time.

As of July 1, the estimated number of coal jobs remaining in Kentucky was 6,465, which officials said is the lowest mark since 1898, before the extension of railroads allowed for explosive growth in production and jobs in eastern Kentucky.

Mining jobs in Letcher County increased to 89 in the second quarter from 87 in the first quarter, but those gains were later wiped out when Alpha Natural Resources cut 15 jobs by closing its Enterprise Mining coal preparation plant at Roxana.

Pike County still had 913 miners at the end of the second quarter while Harlan County had 764. Perry County had 518 miners for the period, and Knott had 186.

The Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, which formed from a partnership among 54 counties, is hoping to replace the loss of coal jobs by attracting technology businesses, The Independent of Ashland reported.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers told SOAR members during its annual meeting in June that “coal is not dead” but “there’s never been a greater necessity for finding ways to supplement the coal industry.”

But before eastern Kentucky can turn into what Rogers and other officials hope will be recognized as “Silicon Holler,” the region will have to boost its high-speed Internet access.

Most of eastern Kentucky’s broadband “block groups” don’t have access to the federal minimum download speed of 25 megabytes per second, according to Roberto Gallardo of the Intelligent Community Institute at Mississippi State University.

Compiled from Mountain Eagle staff and Associated Press reports.

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