Posts Tagged ‘Coal mining’

Coal Country Comeback

April 18, 2017

I am not sure if this is actually good news.

Hazard, Kentucky is one of those small coal-mining towns with one main road snaking through the hollow. Both sides of the road are lined with a handful of retail stores and restaurants. The windows on about half of those stores are now covered with newspaper. The signs out front say, “closed.”

That’s what happens in a one-industry town when the president turns against that industry. Carla Hall at tiny Feltner’s Barbershop, right on the main road, knows that too well.

“My business went down tremendously,” she said.

Like Carla, everyone in town, from the insurance salesman to the waitress at the coffee shop, is ultimately connected to money that comes out of the mine.

“When they start getting laid off, they stretch out the haircuts,” she said.

However, there is a new sense of optimism in coal country and that is linked to a new president who, from the campaign trail, frequently bellowed: “We are going to put our miners back to work.”

I love mining coal,” Carlos Sturdill said 250 feet underground in the E4-1 mine in Hazard. That mine shut down in the Obama years. There are many factors that allowed the mine to re-open and people like Sturdill to get back to work.

For starters, the entire economy has seen a bump. That has created a demand for steel. The high-quality coal that comes out of Appalachia is well suited for making steel.

“I’m glad to be working. I’m thankful I’ve got a job again,” Sturdill said. Then you have President Trump who started rolling back regulations early in his time on the job. One of Trump’s early executive orders was to roll back the Stream Protection Rule. The SPR was created in the 11th hour of the Obama presidency and it would have placed a burden on coal companies to test streams before during and after mining. Trump followed up by undoing the 2015 Waters of the US rule, which broadened the definition of a body of water.

Obviously, it is a good thing that people are getting their jobs back and Hazard’s economy is reviving, yet it seems to me that it is more than a little sad that these communities depend on something as difficult, dangerous and dirty as coal mining for their livelihood. Shouldn’t they aspire to something better for their children than coal mining. Besides, the reprieve is only temporary, as some residents of Hazard realize.

No one expects coal jobs to come back to their heyday. Some of the causes can be pinned on former President Obama.

Under pressure to get away from coal, some power plants shut down. Some were retrofitted to burn natural gas. Now that officials spent the money, they won’t go back — especially because hydraulic fracturing makes natural gas available and cheap.

“So, a lot of that chunk of the market has been taken away,” said Dr. Anthony Szwilski of West Virginia’s Marshall University. “Even though coal is coming back and there will be employment in the future, they are unlikely to go back to where it was 10-15 years ago.”

Technology has also advanced. The reality is this: you can get more coal out of the ground now using fewer people.

I think that advancing technology will make the use of fossil fuels obsolete, probably sooner than most people expect. Coal will probably be phased out soonest because of environmental concerns. Even if there continues to be a demand for coal, there will likely be an increased use of machines to dig the coal. Why risk the lives of miners when a machine will do it, and cost less than paying people to go into the mines? Obama may have been waging a war against coal, but he was only really accelerating a process that was already occurring. It might be better if the town of Hazard could make the transition to something more sustainable and healthier than coal mining sooner than later.

But what are communities like Hazard, Kentucky to transition to? These towns in the Appalachians are too remote and inaccessible to attract much industry. There may be some potential for tourism. I don’t imagine many people would care to visit coal mines, except as a sort of museum, but there are many places in the region that might have enough natural beauty to attract visitors. Even so, tourism will never replace coal mining as a source of income. If it weren’t for the coal mines, it is possible that towns like Hazard would never been settled at all. When coal mining is no longer there, perhaps there will  be no reason for people to live there. Is it the fate of Hazard, Kentucky to become a ghost town, an abandoned reminder of a past era in American history? Or can the people of Hazard make a better future for themselves? I hope they will find a better future for themselves.

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