When coal jobs leave an Appalachian town, what happens to the families left behind?

Chris Kenning

HARLAN, Ky. – It began to rain as the last of a handful of cars pulled up to the small white church, tucked between steep Appalachian hillsides overgrown by kudzu.

Inside, Jason Powers, a tattooed pastor and third-generation coal miner, greeted worshipers weighed down with worry as they sat among blue-cushioned pews for the weeknight service. 

Powers and many of his flock have been out of work since the latest coal company bankruptcy.

Layoffs in Harlan County are nothing new. But this one landed like a gut punch. 

More than a quarter of the county’s miners were left jobless when Blackjewel and Revelation Energy closed mines July 1.

Not only did the closings come without warning, but the company's bounced paychecks had left miners struggling to pay mortgages and buy groceries.

Some had enough. Powers’ Sunday school teacher was leaving, packing for a coal job out of state. Another churchgoer had decided to retrain as a lineman.

After seeing fellow miners laid off five times in as many years, Powers told the church that he, too, was finally done with coal.

"Sometimes God opens a door, and that might be the unemployment line," he said as the rain beat down on the church roof. "I can’t depend on coal for the rest of my life."

In Harlan County – where a memorial downtown honors a century of fallen miners, mining-lamp decals adorn pickup windows, and men in blue, reflective-striped mining pants are a common sight at stores and gas stations – there are no strangers to coal’s mercurial highs and lows.

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The townspeople here who have long been through boom-and-bust cycles see coal continue its downward slide in an Appalachian region that ranks among the poorest in America

But the collapse of Blackjewel, the latest major American coal company to declare bankruptcy, roiled Harlan with unusual intensity, eliminating the jobs of 225 of the county’s 850 workers and sending financial turmoil rippling through the area.

The ensuing anger led a group of miners to block a company coal train in July as they demanded back pay. Blackjewel's bankruptcy has accelerated a reckoning among miners like Powers, worn out by years of uncertainty, their hopes fading for President Donald Trump's promised coal revival. 

Difficult talks are playing out over dinner tables across Harlan County: whether to ride out such bankruptcies, sticking with coal as long as possible; leave home for steadier coal jobs in places like Alabama; or bet on a new career as local leaders try to attract new employers.

The question on everyone’s mind: whether to quit coal, or wait until coal quits you.

“They’ve always hoped, maybe it will get better in five years. But that’s kind of ended. They don’t say that anymore,” said Michal Ingram, an admission coordinator at Harlan’s Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, where he’s been inundated with applications. "This time more are really saying, ‘I’m done with it, I’m going into something else.'"

Closures hit hard

The alarm rang at 3 a.m. July 1 like it did six days a week in John Howard’s neat Harlan mobile home, a Trump flag flying over a wood deck with an aboveground pool.

His wife, Melody, who stays home to care for their daughter, who has autism, got up to make breakfast for the 43-year-old former Blackjewel foreman. He drove his truck with a “Coal keeps the lights on!” plate through 45 minutes of winding roads to his job at Blackjewel’s Huff Creek Mine.

After attaching his methane gas detector, he boarded a squat "mantrip" transporter for the 70-minute ride miles into the mine. He conducted a "danger run," checking safety for the incoming day shift whose machines would drill into a thin seam of coal.

Howard, who began helping deliver coal out of a pickup at age 12 and never finished high school, said the mystique and danger of working in an industry woven deeply into Harlan County’s culture always felt “cool,” sort of “like riding a motorcycle.” 

There were also few options in the area, he said, "it's either Walmart, coal mine, hospital."

Amid the downturn in recent years, he left to work as a trucker but came back after Trump’s election and secured a job with Blackjewel. His experience meant he was earning nearly $100,000 a year “bossing,” pay that was nearly impossible to beat. 

Back home that evening, Howard learned the company had declared bankruptcy and the mine was closing. The closure affected a handful of mines in Harlan County and put 1,700 miners out of work in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The company, run by CEO Jeff Hoops, had purchased marginal mines and found itself struggling, he said in court papers, amid familiar pressures of abundant natural gas, more renewable energy and tougher environmental regulations.

"The entire industry either has gone through, or is currently going through, a period of financial distress and reorganization," he said in an affidavit.

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Blackjewel and affiliates, including Revelation Energy, were the nation's sixth-largest U.S. coal producer in 2017, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. It came after other major coal producer bankruptcies in recent years, including Blackhawk, Westmoreland Coal Co. and Cloud Peak Energy in May.

Howard figured the shutdown might last a day or two but the mines would reopen after a financial reorganization.

The next day, miners' phones started ringing: “Check your bank account,” friends warned.

Howard’s June 28 paycheck bounced. Across Harlan, Howard and other miners found their bank accounts overdrawn, jeopardizing payments on houses, cars and utilities.

Some miners said their 401(k) contributions and child-support deductions hadn’t been credited. 

Some local mining suppliers and businesses were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. At Don’s Super Saver, a local family grocery cashed more than $93,000 in bad checks. 

"Jeff Hoops screwed everybody," Howard said recently as his wife got her daughter ready for vacation Bible school and he laid plans to get his GED and change careers. "He better never come back to Harlan County."

That same feeling washed over Samantha Lawson as she sat in the open door of her truck far up a narrow and remote hollow, where ramshackle homes clung to either side of a creek.

Jason Lawson, her husband, crouched next to the truck in a Def Leppard T-shirt.

The couple’s dining table sat outside their house, covered with a blue tarp. Furniture was stacked nearby. They were waiting on a rental company to pick up furniture, a TV and iPhones for nonpayment after her husband’s layoff left them more than $2,700 overdrawn.

Worst still, she said, they had to cancel a long-anticipated mobile home they’d ordered – their first new home – to replace the crumbling cottage where they live with four children.

"It was beautiful. It had a fireplace and a kitchen island," said Samantha Lawson. "You think you’re on top of the world, and the next minute, you’re at the bottom."

Two of their children blew off steam and disappointment by riding a small motorbike up and down the narrow road. What would they do?

Jason Lawson hoped the bankruptcy proceedings would go quickly. Maybe the mines would reopen or be purchased by a new owner. There were other mines, but not enough openings to absorb all the miners. 

Samantha Lawson was trying to find local work at a medical facility or a retail shop as far as an hour away. There was Walmart or other lower-wage employers.

They also were considering a move to Alabama or Western Kentucky, where they said the coal is cheaper to mine and work more steady. But that would mean uprooting their family. 

"I don’t want to move," said their 16-year-old son, a junior at Harlan High.

Jason Lawson squinted and looked at the ground, his dog lying nearby.

“Everybody says coal is done,” he said. “There just ain’t much else around here that pays.”

The heart of coal country 

The younger miners call him “papaw,” said 64-year-old Darrell Raleigh, as he drove along Cloverlick Creek past rusting coal conveyor belts and gravel road entries into mines with names like Panther.

“I’ve worked up and down this holler my whole life,” said the out-of-work mine electrician who had maintained belts and other machinery. “There used to be at least seven mines up here.”

Pulling into his home, its windows hung with blankets because his air conditioner was turned off to save money, he looked across the road toward the half-empty downtown of Cumberland.

It’s a place of vacant and dilapidated brick buildings, one bar that draws a handful of patrons, an empty 1950s motel with broken windows, and a Pizza Hut near the bypass.

Growing up here in the 1950s and 1960s, Raleigh said, the town had theaters, drive-ins, five grocery stores and dozens of bars. The streets were full of miners, who in 1950 numbered 13,619 in Harlan County alone, drawn in a boom fueled by metallurgical coal for steel production.

On Black Mountain, a giant company-owned town had its own schools, commissaries and housing.

Raleigh married his wife, Donna, when she was 16 and began work in mines. In the 1970s, Cumberland saw violent conflicts erupt during strikes led by the United Mine Workers, depicted in the 1976 Academy Award-winning documentary “Harlan County, USA.”

It was a throwback to “Bloody Harlan,” the union strikes and battles of the 1930s over working conditions.

“It was the union people against the company gun thugs,” said Raleigh, who noted that despite gains in working conditions, mines could still be dangerous. A relative was among 26 killed in the nearby 1976 Scotia mine explosion, caused by inadequate ventilation. 

Raleigh worked for various companies as bigger operators sold to smaller ones. Over time, jobs fell off as coal became more expensive to reach and increasingly mechanized. The industry hit a sharp downturn after Eastern Kentucky production peaked in the early 1990s at more than 125 million tons.

Across Appalachia, coal production continued to fall, by nearly 45% overall between 2005 and 2015, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. U.S. energy provided by coal-fired power plants has fallen sharply.

Raleigh blamed environmental regulations for mining and burning coal that led politicians to decry the “War on Coal.”

But as mining jobs shrank, so too did the county’s population, which reached higher than 75,000 in 1940 but has dipped to 26,400.

“All these companies started closing down, going out of business,” he said. “Coal mining went down and everybody left.”

In the first quarter of 2019, 3,959 miners were working Eastern Kentucky, down from 15,147 a decade earlier, according to state figures.

Depopulation, declining property taxes, and drop-off in coal tax funds have recently made it hard for some Eastern Kentucky counties to fund basic services, said Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

The latest string of bankruptcies will likely be remembered, said Ned Pillersdorf, an Eastern Kentucky lawyer representing the out-of-work miners’ efforts to get their back pay. He said the bankruptcy may be a strategy to slough off debt to the detriment of workers.

“One day when you write the obituary for coal mining around here, it will include this string of bankruptcies in the summer of 2019,” he said.

Raleigh said he’s too old to start a new career, and is biding time until he can live on Social Security. His grown children have moved away. He lauded Trump’s promise to put miners back to work, but said it wasn’t as successful as he hoped. 

“It was starting to improve some. Everybody thought things was gonna change,” he said. 

“It’ll never be back to what it was,” his wife said.

New careers and jobs

In a classroom at Harlan’s community college, a handful of men with beards and tattoos squinted at computers during a GED test, scribbling math problems on a sheet of paper.

In another building, miners filled out paperwork to apply for programs to learn new trades – electricians, welders, utility lineman, fiber optics workers and even nurses. Most programs are funded with federal and other coal-focused workforce retraining scholarships.

"I never thought I’d be 40 and starting all over again,” said miner Collin Cornette. “For 18 years I’ve been identified as a coal miner. It’s what I am, it’s what I do, it’s what I know. I’m sitting here having to change my whole life.”

Howard, too, was going back to school, earning his GED and hoping to go into a new trade. He’d get a stipend and a scholarship to pay for it. 

James Ward, 38, with a wife and two teenage children, had seen too many layoffs as mines were sold and resold to smaller companies.

“It’s just a matter of time before the other small coal mines do this again,” he said. Besides, he said, “Seems like everybody’s fighting against coal, for it to go away, go to renewable resources … so you’re kind of in an industry that nobody seems to want to survive."

A few miles away, at the Community Action Agency, other miners sought unemployment forms or asked about food boxes. Agency director Donna Pace said many miners live paycheck to paycheck, despite good wages, and mining families often have only one income. 

Across the road at City Hall, Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said he’s working to attract new employers. He cited newer ones such as a business that wraps firewood for sale at grocery stores, a company that hires people to work in their homes and take tech support and other calls for companies, and a build-ready industrial park site that he’s using to lure a new employer. 

The Medicaid expansion has helped create more health care jobs in the region, and there have been efforts to expand tourism, but the larger factories that many workers say they want haven’t moved to the remote area, said Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Harlan County has a 7% unemployment rate, but only 38% are in the workforce, compared with a national average of 63%, said Jared Arnett, executive director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, a nonprofit formed in 2013 to coordinate economic development.

Despite some progress, “We just don’t have enough jobs for the number of people who are here,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers has sponsored a bill that would provide $100 million to Kentucky for cleanups of abandoned mine lands to add jobs and spur development, but it hasn’t passed Congress.

Meanwhile, miners were keeping tabs on bankruptcy proceedings. A firm had already sought to buy the company’s Wyoming mines, but there was no buyer yet for the Kentucky mines, or word if the company could reopen.

And if the mines did reopen, whether all the vows to change careers would hold up in the face of job offers.

On July 29, a group of local miners saw a coal train leaving a closed Blackjewel mine and blocked its path, demanding answers. It drew news reporters and other miners who read about it on a Blackjewel employee Facebook page.

Some camped out into the night, setting up a cornhole game on the tracks and playing country music from pickups. A train a day later still hadn't moved.

 “Bloody Harlan is still alive,” a member wrote on the Blackjewel Facebook page.

Family members hold signs along Highway 421 in Harlan in support of coal miners affected by the bankruptcy of the Blackjewel coal company. July 18, 2019

Quitting coal 

The sun was setting on the former coal camp of Wallins Creek, a 20-minute drive from Harlan, as Jack Webb sat on the back porch of his cottage on a recent day. He held a mining mask that he’d never wear again.

Four generations of Webb’s family sat around him in porch chairs, having just returned from holding handmade signs in Harlan to passing cars, reading “We Support Coal” and “Proud to be a coalminer’s daughter” in support of out-of-work miners. 

But the 49-year-old, who spent three decades drilling into underground coal seams, surviving at least one cave-in, was finished in coal. But not because he was struggling to pay his electric bill after his layoff. 

Just one day after his Blackjewel mine closed, Jack was diagnosed with third-stage black lung disease, a fatal respiratory condition caused by inhaling coal and silica dust. 

“That’s it for me,” he said. “They won’t hire you with black lung, anyway.”

The same disease had killed his coal-mining father five years earlier. His mother, Hattie Webb, said he didn’t want his son in the mines and told her so three decades ago for fear of black lung.

He “stayed mad at me forever” for helping Jack Webb find work there, she said, her eyes tearing up.

She looked at her son. “Me and him are going to run the roads. We’re going to go to flea markets, and go on vacation.”

A 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report noted that one in five central Appalachia miners working for at least 25 years had evidence of black lung, the highest recorded in 25 years.

The reason isn’t clear, but some suggest it could be the result of newer mining methods. Advocates recently have been pushing lawmakers to shore up the struggling Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which serves victims.

Jack Webb's father lived for 19 years after his diagnosis. But Webb wasn't ready to quit coal. He wanted to work another decade in the job he loved. But coal had quit him.

His daughter squeezed his hand. 

“It’s God’s way of telling him, it’s time,” she said.

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at ckenning@gannett.com, or 502-396-3361 or on Twitter @chris_kenning.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Miners in Kentucky town struggle as coal jobs continue to disappear