This is the first in a five-part series, “Fed up in Kentucky,” exploring how political issues are playing out in personal ways in the Bluegrass State this election season.
Harlan County, Ky. — In eastern Kentucky, generation after generation of coal miners have done the hard, dirty, dangerous work of extracting what they call black gold. Ever proud and increasingly defiant, residents here celebrate coal as a way of life.
“Every young boy wants to be like his dad,” said Jamie Johnson, a 41-year-old coal miner. “So I seen my dad come home from the mines every day, and I just fell into it myself.”
But the local coal industry is in free fall. Kentucky coal production decreased by nearly 12 percent last year, to just over 80 million tons — the lowest level since 1963, according to a report produced by the state in partnership with the Kentucky Coal Association. The report also stated that the decline in industry cost eastern Kentucky 7,000 jobs from 2011 to 2013, leaving fewer than 12,000 miners in the state. Most mines here have shut down, been idled or gone bankrupt over the past decade. Harlan County residents blame Barack Obama’s administration and what they call a war on coal.
“No doubt, there is a war on coal,” said Clyde Vester Bennett III, who owns four coal mines in Harlan County that employ 200 people. There are 87 active coal mines in the county, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
He comes from a family that has mined coal for more than a century. His grandfather founded the company in 1912. “We got the best miners in the world,” he said of Kentucky coal miners.
Despite a long history in the business and a pool of expert workers, Bennett said his coal business days are numbered. Employment, production and profits are all declining. “We’ll be lucky if it is still here in five years,” he said, adding that he’s had to cut his workforce by 70 percent since 2006.
“You don’t like to go in debt and stuff, because you don’t ever know when you’re going to have a job,” said Harold Mulkey, a 36-year-old miner who works for Bennett. “I have worked at five different mines that have shut down and laid off and stuff like that.”
Coal generates more than a third of the United States’ electrical power; in Kentucky it accounts for 93 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Environmental Protection Agency says coal-fired power plants are the nation’s worst carbon polluters. In June it proposed rules to cut power plants’ carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Residents see it as the latest blow from Washington.
“It seems that everyone wants to get on the bandwagon about environmental issues,” said Bennett. “Your Clean Water Act, your Clean Air Act … People have been led to believe that coal is bad.”
And utilities are responding to the impending regulations.
Kentucky Power, the largest provider of electricity to eastern Kentucky, is shutting down an 800-megawatt coal plant in June 2015 and converting another to natural gas. As a result, the heart of coal country will be powered less and less by coal.
“One of the things that I’m responsible for is to make sure that I continue to provide them a product — electricity — at a reasonable price,” said Greg Pauley, president and COO of Kentucky Power. "And for me to continue to do that with coal is going to be greatly more expensive than it would be for gas.”
While many here blame Obama personally, coal in Eastern Kentucky was in deep trouble long before he took office. Production has declined 63 percent since 2000. Over generations, the state’s richest and most accessible coal seams have been tapped. Eastern Kentucky coal now costs as much as $70 a ton to mine, making it the most expensive coal in the country. In Wyoming, coal is mined for $10 a ton.
But in coal country, these are hard realities to accept.
“And when we fail to do our job, we fail to be competitive, fail to sell our coal, fail to provide continuous employment for our employees, it is very painful,” Bennett said. “It hurts. These are people I grew up with, people I know and love.”
To view the “Fed up in Kentucky” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern