Letcher County lost 5.7 percent of its population between April 2010 and July 2015, new U.S. census figures show.
Letcher, which lost 1,396 residents during the five-year period, is one of several coal-producing counties in central Appalachia with significant population declines amid a storm of layoffs in the mining industry.
The figures show that Letcher County’s total population is now 23,123, down from 25,519 in 2010. Letcher’s population loss was the highest in terms of percentage among neighboring counties, but Harlan, Pike, and Wise County, Va., lost more people.
Figures show that Pike County lost 3,232 residents, or 5.0 percent of its population, between 2010 and 2015. Pike now has a total population of 61,792, down from 65,024.
Wise County’s population fell from 41,452 in 2010 to 39,718 in 2015, a loss of 1,758 — or 4.2 percent — of its residents. Harlan County lost 5.4 percent of its population during the five-year period, dipping to 27,703 residents from 29,278. Perry County’s population fell 4.0 percent, from 28,712 residents in 2010 to 27,565 in 2015, a loss of 1,141 residents. Knott County’s population dropped from 16,346 in 2010 to 15,693 in 2015.
While the slumping coal industry played a roll in Letcher County’s population loss, a higher death rate and lower birth rate also played significant parts. There were 1,462 babies born in Letcher County between 2010 and 2015, compared to 1,670 deaths, representing a net loss of 208 people.
Figures show thousands of residents moved out of coal-rich regions in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia in 2015.
In West Virginia, nine of the 10 counties that lost the most population were in the southern coalfields. The biggest toll was in McDowell County, which lost 2.2 percent of its residents to fall below 20,000 in population for the first time since the 1900 Census.
McDowell County is a shell of what it was a halfcentury ago when it led the nation in coal production. The county’s population peaked at 98,887 in 1950. Now, more than a third of its residents live in poverty.
But McDowell County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Stephanie Addair said the county isn’t giving up its fight to bring in jobs that have seemed scarce ever since U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations in 2003.
There was some good news last year when Bluestone Resources Inc. announced the reopening of two southern West Virginia mines, including one in McDowell County.
That was an anomaly. Usually the headlines are about layoffs. Another economic hit came in January when Walmart closed its only store in the county.
“We’re resilient people,” Addair said. “We’re going to come back.”
If that’s true, coal might not be the driving force. Although many mines are still operating in the county, the industry has seen thousands of layoffs in the past year. And producers Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal, with many operations in central Appalachia, have filed for bankruptcy protection.
U.S. coal production is projected to dip to 834 million tons this year, the lowest since 1983, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In eastern Kentucky, coal employment is less than half of what it was in 2008.
Last year alone, all of Kentucky’s 10 top coalproducing counties lost residents, a combined drop of 3,060. Top producer Pike County’s population fell 1,043 residents, or 1.66 percent. Harlan County, where an Alpha mine was idled in 2015, lost 353 residents, or 1.26 percent.
In Virginia, top state coal producer Buchanan County saw the third-biggest drop in population last year at 1.73 percent. Nearby Dickenson County saw a 1.25 percent drop and Wise County had a 0.59 percent dip.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said local placement programs for out-of-work miners often find them new jobs outside the coalfields.
“We understand that as there’s a reduction in production of coal and employment, in many cases it forces people to move elsewhere,” Bissett said. “We would definitely suggest there’s a connection to the downturn in coal” and population losses.