Coal's decline hits hardest in E. Tennessee, Kentucky

Coal's decline hits hardest in E. Tennessee, Kentucky

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For decades, the coal seams running through the mountains of Appalachia have been the life line of the people in many communities. For decades, the coal seams running through the mountains of Appalachia have been the life line of the people in many communities.
Over the last several years, a combination of reasons has led to the decline of jobs as mine after mine shut down. Over the last several years, a combination of reasons has led to the decline of jobs as mine after mine shut down.
Fred Moore is a miner born and raised in Bell County, Ky. Fred Moore is a miner born and raised in Bell County, Ky.
One job inside the mine results in about seven outside. As jobs decline here, it has a ripple effect to the rest of the community. One job inside the mine results in about seven outside. As jobs decline here, it has a ripple effect to the rest of the community.

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

MIDDLEBORO, Ky (WATE) – For decades, the coal seams running through the mountains of Appalachia have been the life line of the people in many communities, but over the last several years, a combination of reasons has led to the decline of jobs as mine after mine shut down.

The family-operated Solid Fuels mine is located in Claiborne County, right on the border of Kentucky. It's one of the few active mines in the state and we got a unique opportunity to travel deep inside the mine and talk to the men who've spent their lives underground.

Fred Moore is a miner born and raised in Bell County, Ky.

"Straight out of high school, straight into the coal mines, that's all I've done, that's all I know," explained Moore, 41.

Moore's uncle owns the mine, and just like many of the men, it's a family tradition to mine the coal that continues to generate electricity for about 37 percent of the country.

"It's what my family's done," Moore said.

The decline in coal consumption nationwide has meant a steady decline in the jobs locally. Almost all of these men hail from Eastern Kentucky. The statistics reveal a bleak picture on how the industry in their home state has declined.

According to the Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence, 1993, there were 19,419 people working in the mines in Eastern Kentucky. Fast forward 20 years and the number has plummeted to 7,332 workers in the last quarter of 2013.

The coal industry has always seen its ups and downs, but nothing like this.

"Before, you could go out and find a job anywhere in the coal mines. The jobs are slim now. If you've got one, you better do your best to try to run coal and be safe and keep it," said Moore.

John Good, 25, is a third generation miner. He says finding work in the mines is much harder than it was for his father or grandfather.

"It's tough. It took me almost eight months to find a job, going around to mines every day, looking, pounding the pavement," said Good.

Jim Adams is the safety director for the mine. He's been working underground for almost 30 years and has seen the industry fluctuate, but never like this.

"When I first started, the county I lived in, there were probably 125 licensed mines, and now there's one mine," explained Adams.

Many in the industry blame President Barrack Obama's supposed "War on Coal," but the men we spoke with were hesitant to say that on camera.

"I think just... over-regulation probably," said Adams with some hesitation.  "And then you have your bigger companies that push for regulations. It's harder on your smaller operators. The more regulations you have, the bigger the expense to run a mine."

The output at this mine is around 800 raw tons of coal a day. That's considered a small operation, but their work has a major impact on the local economy. One job inside the mine results in about seven outside. As jobs decline here, it has a ripple effect to the rest of the community.

"It impacts every grocery store, mom and pop stores, it impacts everything," explained Janet Jackson, the director of the Workforce Investment Act in Bell County, Ky.

She oversees the program HOME, Hiring Our Miners Everyday. Through federal grants, their main objective is to put coal miners back to work.

"Finding the equivalent to what they were used to making in our area is very hard because that was probably the highest paying jobs in the area," explained Jackson.

The average miner's salary in Bell County is $881 a week, compared to the average worker in the area who makes $550.

Unemployment is high in Bell County hovering around 13 percent.

"We're currently helping over 100 unemployed miners and related workforce," explained Jackson. "They're having to look at things they've never had to look at before, homes lost, vehicles lost."

There are coal mining jobs available in Western Kentucky. Mine employment fell by just two percent last year, compared to 23 percent in the eastern half of the state.

The low sulfur coal found in Appalachia used to be preferable, but current regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency require power plants to have scrubbers to control pollution. Therefore, many are turning to the cheaper, high-sulfur coal from the Illinois Basin, which includes Western Kentucky mines.

"Around here, if coal mining goes out, I might go look somewhere else, maybe go out west, maybe a different country, just try to stay under ground," said Good.

That's the sentiment we got after spending the day with these miners. Many of them love what they do, but some are also realistic and know it might not improve. Adams has spent his life working with coal but hopes his two sons take a different path.

"Deferred them away from it," he said. "It's my part, I don't see a future in it."

Others hold on to hope, praying for a light at the end of tunnel and that the coal industry will bounce back.

"It's what I'd like to do to feed my family," explained Moore. "Guess it's just in my blood."

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