Things are looking up for the coal industry, at least a little bit. Over the past few months, there’s been a slight uptick in coal production, caused by an increased demand for metallurgical coal. It’s the type of coal that’s used to make steel and mined in West Virginia . Even so, only 80 million tons of coal were mined in 2016, the lowest level in several decades.
The small boost that economists are forecasting comes after several years of intense decline in coal production, though, causing thousands of miners to lose their jobs, most of them in southern West Virginia. Now, some people in the region are looking for ways to diversify the region’s economy and, in turn, decrease its reliance on a boom and bust industry.
Eight years ago, Boone County had nearly 4,000 employees working for the coal industry. This area hasn’t seen that many coal mining jobs since the 1980s. Today there are 600 mining jobs.
Former Boone County coal miner Eliezer Flores said he’s been trying to sell his house since last summer. But like many homeowners in southern West Virginia, he said he doesn’t see much hope in finding anyone willing to buy.
Flores worked as a coal miner in West Virginia for more than three decades. His main concern now is for his health insurance and pension.
“We kept the lights on for this country, and now they want to put our lights out. Put us in the pasture and let em die.”
Flores feels abandoned by politicians and coal company CEOs. “We made them millions and millions of dollars. The people work in the coal mines, people getting crippled. I’ve seen some of my friends getting killed. And they’re making money.”
Flores is originally from Mexico, but he moved from Chicago to Boone County in 1972 to work in the coal mines. “It was a great county to live in. There were jobs everywhere, plenty of coal jobs, and other jobs was around here.”
After living in West Virginia for 44 years, Flores said he wants out.
Others want to stay, like 37-year-old Lola Cline, from Mingo County. She worked in the coal industry for about five years.
“Three of those five years were great, I guess. That’s when it was boomin'. The last two years it just went downhill. Kept going downhill. Till you couldn’t find a job.”
A few months ago, Cline got a job in a retraining program, called Refresh Appalachia, a project of the Coalfield Development Corporation. Cline and four other laid off miners are farming on top of an old strip mine in Mingo County, raising chickens, pigs and goats.
But the program doesn’t pay nearly as much as she earned before - nearly $60,000 a year plus overtime. That’s when she was working for mining companies reclaiming strip mines. Now, she earns about $24,000.
But as a single mom with 4 girls, she’s struggling to pay the bills. “It’s very tough. I could use two jobs, but right now I’m trying. [In] two and a half years I’ll have my degree, and maybe I can go to work and get a better job. That’s my outlook on it right now.”
As a part of the program, Cline is also getting her Associates degree in Applied Science from Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
She hopes that more coal jobs will return to Southern West Virginia, but she’s not too hopeful that it will ever be as well-paying as it once was.
“There’s rumors that they’re starting to hire more. I just don’t know if we have the coal left. These mountains have been mined lots,” Cline said.
“The question you hear around here a lot is, ‘Will mining ever return to what it once was?’” said
Chris Hamilton, Senior Vice President of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Hamilton has been working for the West Virginia Coal Association for three decades. In that time he’s seen a gradual decline in coal jobs.
But the loss has been even more dramatic in recent years. Since 2012, West Virginia has lost about half of its coal mining jobs.
“Words can’t describe what some of our mining families are experiencing or going through,” said Hamilton.
Since 2012, the state went from having 23,000 mining jobs to 11,000. Most of these losses have been in southern West Virginia.
John Deskins is the Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. He’s been studying the decline in the southern West Virginia, where there are very few other industries. “So a lot of people looking for work, not many other industries hiring. It’s leading to a real Depression-like economic environment in these southern coalfields in West Virginia.”
Deskins said there are three main reasons coal has been declining in West Virginia in the last few years. “The first is the natural gas boom. And natural gas is an alternative. It’s an alternative fuel to coal. So if natural gas prices are going down, then that hurts coal.”
The second reason, said Deskins, is that the global demand for coal has decreased in recent years, as the global economy, especially in China, has slowed. But that may be improving
“We think export demand is actually going to improve in coming years. We think that’s going to improve with Trump, we thought that would happen with Hillary,” said Deskins.
The third major factor affecting coal is the regulatory climate. President Trump has vowed to kill the Clean Power Plan, which would require coal fired power plants to reduce carbon emissions. That might help coal, but Deskins said it won’t bring back most of the lost jobs.
"The Clean Power Plan is likely off the table with the Trump presidency, but you know the Clean Power Plan wasn’t in effect anyway. It was slated to begin in the early 2020s. The elimination of the Clean Power Plan will definitely eliminate further downward pressure on coal, but it’s not going to bring coal back.”
Back at the West Virginia Coal Association office in Charleston, Chris Hamilton said he believes Trump will do more for the coal industry than Clinton would have. But like Deskins, he doesn’t see a lot of coal jobs coming back, at least not to levels the state saw in 2012, or in the 1970s.
“You can not go back,” said Hamilton.
John Deskins agrees that the coal industry won’t return to what it once was. He believes the best long term solution for southern West Virginia is if new industries and businesses open up in these areas.
“Best case scenario is for entrepreneurs to experiment and really find what specific industries and niches really work to replace the loss in coal in our southern coalfields.”
Deskins said it will take some time for entrepreneurs to find what works for these communities. In the meantime, he said legislators can help by providing more education and by fighting the opioid epidemic to make the workforce more employable.
Getting a college education is a far off dream for many kids from the coalfields.
At the Mingo County Refresh Appalachia farm, Lola Cline is getting paid for her work on the farm and the time she spends in college classes. After she and her co-workers feed the animals, they’ll head down the mountain to their classroom in Williamson.
“It’s an opportunity that we haven’t had because we had to work all the time. Because when you work on a strip job you work 80 hours a week. You work ten or sixteen hours a day. So, now we’re working for a degree that we can put something in, and not have to do coal mining. There’s something else for us.”
After she gets her degree, Cline said she wants to continue farming, and maybe even go into business selling food, or helping turn strip mines into farmland.