These days, Bobby Spare feels like the last man standing.
The 59-year-old engineer began working in eastern Kentucky's coal fields 38 years ago, like his father and grandfather before him. With nothing more than a high school diploma, Spare landed a job with a local mining company and soon earned his engineer's license. It was a fickle industry; bonuses one year, pink slips the next. But for nearly four decades, it provided a stable, middle-class living for Spare and his six children. Even during the tough years, Spare never lost faith that coal would keep the region's economy afloat. Today, however, he isn't so sure.
The headquarters of B&W Resources, the mining company Spare works for, is a one-story building in Clay County, a verdant slice of Kentucky carved out of the Appalachian foothills. Trucks carrying up to 42 tons of coal rumble past the office and dump their cargo into 100-foot-high piles. Inside the building, Spare fixes himself a cup of coffee and explains that he's never seen the industry so defeated. Coal production in eastern Kentucky has plummeted to its lowest levels in a half-century, and nearly half of the region's mining jobs have vanished since midyear 2011. The collapse has been particularly painful here in Clay County, which, according to the New York Times, "just might be the hardest place to live in the United States," on account of its high unemployment, meager household incomes, and short life expectancies. It's one of the poorest counties in the nation.
“It’s an important election. You might not be able to
fix the business, but you can probably stop it
from getting worse.”
– Bobby Spare
For Spare, the root cause of the meltdown is obvious. "Federal regulations coming out of Washington," he says. "They're really making it tough to stay in business." So he's paying close attention to the upcoming Senate race, which, Spare believes, could be the last chance to save coal communities from extinction. "It's an important election," he says. "You might not be able to fix the business, but you can probably stop it from getting worse."
Amid public dissatisfaction with President Obama and the direction of the country, the 2014 midterm elections have emerged as a high-stakes battle for control of the U.S. Congress. And while every inch of the electoral map remains precious, no campaign has garnered more attention than the showdown in the Bluegrass State. A victory for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is essential to the GOP's plans to take over Congress and install the 72-year-old lawmaker as Senate majority leader. But the race also offers Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a 35-year-old Democrat, the opportunity to knock off the five-term incumbent and leading obstacle to Obama's agenda. Interest in the election has stretched far beyond coal country; individuals and outside groups are reportedly on track to pour more than $100 million into the campaign, which would make it the most expensive Senate race in American history.
"Having both Senate control and the majority leader position at stake has made the McConnell-Grimes race the highest-profile this year," says Nathan Gonzales, of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
The election may very well hinge on a single question: Which candidate do voters trust will help coal workers like Bobby Spare? Both sides have prominently featured coal workers in televised ads and blasted Obama's "war on coal," as they muscle to position themselves as the industry's true champion. Grimes's campaign calls McConnell an out-of-touch creature of Washington who sat idly by as Kentucky's coal mines atrophied. McConnell's supporters argue that putting Grimes in the Senate would give President Obama another liberal ally for his anti-coal crusade.
Coal's starring role in the season's most anticipated campaign underscores a fundamental tension at the heart of Kentucky politics. Although once the linchpin of the state's economy, the coal industry has deteriorated beyond recognition. Today, coal-mining jobs represent less than 1 percent of Kentucky's employment base; if every employed coal miner in the state took a seat inside the University of Kentucky's basketball stadium, about half of the arena would remain empty. And there's nothing in the near-term outlook to alter the industry's trajectory. Still, Kentucky's coal fields remain as important to the state's cultural identity as horses and bourbon, and news of mass layoffs and shuttered mines has only enhanced coal's political power. As a result, politicians like McConnell and Grimes have designed their campaigns to perpetuate the coal mythology, rather than address the most pressing needs of communities like Clay County.
When the telephone rings, Chad Thompson grabs the receiver and listens intently.
"Was it methamphetamines or barbiturates?" he asks.
“Coal has just died here, and we haven’t replaced
it with anything.”
– Chad Thompson
The caller explains that her son has been arrested for drug use; she's terrified and confused. Thompson jots down her son's name and number, and he promises to contact him with information about treatment. "I understand completely what you guys are going through," Thompson says. "We'll get him leveled out."
As the head of Clay County's government-funded substance abuse program, Thompson fields calls like this all day long. Drugs "just took over this town," Thompson says. Pain pills, such as oxycodone and Percocet, were for years the option of choice. But in recent months, Thompson has seen a disturbing trend toward more illicit drugs, like crystal meth and heroin. Once the locals get a taste of the hard stuff, he says, "it's not going to be pretty."
Thompson knows what he's talking about. He began smoking pot at age 12 and by his early 20s he was stealing scrap metal from his family's mining supply company to finance his habit of pain pills and cocaine. It was only after his best friend died of an overdose that he got clean and received approval from the local government to launch the substance-abuse program. For Thompson, who has lived in Clay County his whole life, the drug epidemic is little more than a symptom of the crippling despair that now permeates the area.
"There's nothing here," he says. "Coal was it, man."
Although tiny Clay County, population 21,000, was never a coal-mining mecca like nearby Harlan or Pike Counties, the industry long served as its economic backbone, employing an average of more than 1,500 mine workers annually from 1975 to 1990. "There were coal companies here that had 500 employees all by themselves," says Robert Stivers, the Republican president of the Kentucky State Senate, who grew up in Clay County. For years, Stivers says, pickup trucks crowded convenience store parking lots each morning, as workers purchased their traditional miners' lunches of bologna sandwiches, MoonPies, and cans of Pepsi. By December 1994, the local unemployment rate was just a touch above the national average.
Coal jobs paid high wages and required little training, so many young men dropped out of high school to work in the mines. "There was very little education," says Frank O'Connor, an economics professor at Eastern Kentucky University. "There was an attitude that 'I can go work in the mines and get good money, so why spend my time going to school?'" But coal did more than put clothes on the backs of residents. Clay County officials used coal-tax revenues to fund infrastructure projects, like building a new water treatment plant, a county executive office building, and an emergency response center, Stivers says. "We were doing really well until about five years ago," he says. "Then it just stopped."
Over the past several decades, advances in mechanized drilling technology made the industry less dependent upon workers. "We [still] pull a lot of coal out of the ground; what's changed is how we do it," says Christopher R. Bollinger, a University of Kentucky economics professor. "We don't do it with a lot of guys climbing down a hole anymore." Meanwhile, the reserves of easily accessible coal in eastern Kentucky hollowed out.
Then, in the early 2000s, energy companies began widespread use of a novel drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — to access natural gas reserves that had previously been locked deep underground. The resulting boom in production drove down natural gas prices, creating a cheap alternative to coal. At the same time, the Obama administration's environmental regulations made coal more expensive to mine and less attractive for power plants to burn. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency tightened the permitting guidelines for new coal mines in eastern Kentucky, making it harder to open additional mines. And in 2014 the agency proposed a rule forcing existing coal-fired power plants to slash carbon-dioxide emissions. Together, these free-market and political forces enabled cleaner-burning natural gas to undercut coal's standing as America's go-to source of energy. By 2012, for the first time in history, natural gas was generating just as much electricity as coal.
As production plunged, the flow of coal-tax revenues to eastern Kentucky dropped roughly 35 percent from 2011 to 2013. Laid-off miners couldn't find work because of their limited educations. And with few other employers in the area, the jobless rate in Clay County surged above 15 percent by February 2013. Many locals began drawing government assistance and found comfort in drugs. Thompson has kept written records on 120 Clay County residents who have been through his substance abuse program over the past year. Half of them haven't finished high school, and not a single one has a job. "Coal has just died here, and we haven't replaced it with anything," he says.
“To lay a good man off?
Oh, God, it’s hard to sleep
at night. Because you’re
not just laying him off,
you’re laying off his
wife and children.”
– John Liperote
From 2008 to 2012, the median household income in Clay County was just $22,000, leaving one in three residents below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. Only 7 percent of Clay County residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor's degree or higher; the national rate is 29 percent. Almost half of women in Clay County are obese, while the life expectancy of area men is seven years shorter than the national average, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Today, cars with bumper stickers reading "If You Don't Like Coal, Don't Use Electricity" drive past empty storefronts along the main drag of Manchester, Kentucky, the seat of Clay County's government. Law enforcement choppers buzz the surrounding mountains in search of marijuana growers. About the only way for Clay County residents to build a better life is to move elsewhere — a possibility that Thompson, who is married and has a young son, is reluctantly considering. "I love it here, I want to be buried up in those hills," he says. "But I don't know if I can stay."
Twelve hundred feet up in the eastern Kentucky mountains, LJ Bowling drives his pickup truck along a winding dirt path and comes to a stop at the mining site. A hulking machine, known as a "superior highwall miner," presses its massive drill into the side of the mountain, shaves coal onto a conveyer belt, and carries it into the daylight. Workmen wear earplugs to protect themselves from the deafening schunk schunk schunk, as forklift operators load the black minerals onto trucks.
Bowling, a B&W Resources mining site manager, says the $8 million machine has become increasingly useful given the current regulatory environment. The highwall miner can access coal seams without having to remove the entire mountaintop, like traditional strip mining requires. As a result, regulators are more willing to approve hightop mining projects. "This is supposed to be the future," Bowling says.
The emergence of highwall mining is just one way that President Obama's regulatory agenda has become a present — and troubling — part of life for eastern Kentucky's coal workers. In the 1970s, the permitting process for new mines took between 30 and 60 days, coal workers say. Today, thanks in part to the Obama administration's more detailed permitting requirements, the waiting could last a year — or more. Woody Asher, B&W Resources director of engineering, says he's seen permit applications hung up for as long as five years. "When you can't get a permit from the EPA, you can't work," he says. Many coal companies now hire outside consultants to ensure their applications comply with the new permitting requirements, which puts additional downward pressure on profits. Regulators occasionally appear at mine sites and hassle workers over trivial issues, Bowling says. "It seems like a personal vendetta," he says.
Coal workers in Clay County see little nuance in the factors behind the industry's decline. "When you see Obama trying to take the coal industry down to its knees, it really hurts," says Greg Caldwell, a B&W Resources leasing agent.
“Barack Obama has been a disaster. I guess that’s what we get for electing someone with no experience. He was only two years into his first big job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” – Mitch McConnell
Obama is wildly unpopular in Kentucky. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney took 61 percent of the state's vote, carrying 116 out of 120 counties. Nearly half of residents strongly disapprove of Obama's job performance. Kentucky's socially conservative voters are turned off by Obama's liberal agenda but also, in some cases, by his race. Al Cross, political columnist and professor at the University of Kentucky, says his review of exit polls from the 2008 presidential election shows that about 15 percent of Kentucky's electorate voted on some sort of racial basis. "Most of that was white racism because we were only 7 percent black in this state," Cross says. And even though he's not on the ballot, the president has become a towering figure in Kentucky's fiercely contested Senate race.
Instead of a technical debate over coal policy differences, the McConnell-Grimes race has become a battle over who's better positioned to stand up to the president. McConnell's campaign has worked tirelessly to link Grimes to Obama. Grimes was elected as Kentucky's secretary of state in 2011; it's her first time in public office. "Barack Obama has been a disaster," McConnell told a cheering-and-jeering crowd in early August at an annual political picnic held at Fancy Farm, in western Kentucky. "I guess that's what we get for electing someone with no experience. He was only two years into his first big job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?" McConnell's supporters argue that Grimes is an Obama ally who lacks both the standing and the inclination to block the president's anti-coal agenda.
Grimes has struggled to distance herself from Obama. "Senator, you seem to think that the president is on the ballot this year," Grimes said at the same event. "He's not. This race is between me and you." It didn't help that Grimes held a high-end fundraiser in April with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada and a vocal supporter of the president's environmental policy. Although Grimes's campaign pledged to use the event to draw attention to how federal regulations have hammered Kentucky's fossil-fuel industry, a recording of her 11-minute speech, released by Politico, showed that she didn't once say the word "coal."
The Grimes campaign argues that McConnell fell asleep on the job during his three decades in Washington. The senator, Grimes's supporters argue, has been more interested in inflaming partisan extremism than fighting to save Kentucky's coal jobs. "When it comes to our Kentucky coal miners, well, Mitch McConnell doesn't care," Grimes told the crowd at the Fancy Farm event.
In recent years, coal issues have come to play an increasingly pivotal role in Kentucky politics. Just ask Ben Chandler. The four-term Democratic incumbent lost his House seat in 2012 after his Republican opponent, Andy Barr, blasted him for voting in favor of President Obama's cap-and-trade bill, which was designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions from sources like coal. The tactic's effectiveness was surprising because the 19-county congressional district did not have a single active coal mine.
“Senator, you seem to think that the president is on the ballot this year. He’s not. This race is between me and you.” – Alison Lundergan Grimes
The phenomenon has puzzled economists. After all, Kentucky's economy is not nearly as dependent upon coal as McConnell's and Grimes's campaign ads suggest. At its peak in 1948, coal mining employed more than 75,000 people in Kentucky. But although the state remains the nation's third largest coal producer, mining employment dipped below 12,000 by the end of 2013. Today, coal miners represent less than 1 percent of the state's employment base. "To put it into perspective, do you know how many people work for the University of Kentucky? About 20,000," says Bollinger, the University of Kentucky economics professor. "So don't tell me [that the coal industry is] huge." In Clay County, coal miners have been all but wiped off the map. By 2013 there was an average of only 56 still employed in the area.
Moreover, as coal jobs have receded, the state's economy has actually become healthier because it has expanded into other sectors like manufacturing, health care, and financial services. "A diversified economy is a better economy," Bollinger says. "Be careful about putting all your money on one horse, because that's what Detroit did." Coal has certainly helped broaden the state's economic footprint. Because the short distances from mines to power plants reduce transportation costs, Kentucky has the second lowest energy prices in the county. "This is the first thing Governor [Steve] Beshear brings up when he meets with any foreign or domestic company: If you come to Kentucky you will have reliable and affordable electricity," says Bill Bissett, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
In addition, the focus on coal has overshadowed an issue that's perhaps even more important to Clay County's future: education. Only six in ten people in Clay County have a high school diploma; that's significantly less than the national average, which is nearly nine out of 10 people. "The economy has changed and it's changed toward higher skill workers," Bollinger says. "The entire country has kept up; Clay County hasn't."
But in Kentucky, coal's political power has less to do with economic data than it does with cultural identity. "It's always been a way of life," Bobby Spare says. "This area would be nothing without it."
Support for miners touches every part of the state. Kentucky voters take pride in the state's mining history and have sympathy for the hardships in coal country. "They read about the 8,000 coal miners losing their jobs, and that has an impact," Cross says. "The job losses have actually made it easier for the coal interests to get the voters on their side."
Coal's clout has been further bolstered by a seismic shakeup of the industry's traditional political alliances. For as long as people have pulled coal out of Kentucky's foothills, mine workers and company operators have found themselves on opposing sides of political issues. That began to change around the time of Obama's election. "Since the industry has come under the largest attack it has ever been under, the wagons have circled and the miners are in harness with the operators," Cross says. By working together, miners and operators have been able to rally support for their agenda more effectively than either side could individually.
John Liperote comes from a Pittsburgh mining family. He and his brothers purchased B&W Resources in 2008, just before everything fell apart. He has great affection for the local workforce. "If you treat them fair, they'll give you the shirt off their back," he says. But the slower permitting process and regulatory headaches have made business tough, he says, and B&W Resources recently had to let people go. "To lay a good man off? Oh, God, it's hard to sleep at night," Liperote says. "Because you're not just laying him off, you're laying off his wife and children."
Despite the smaller payroll, Liperote still worries about the company's future. "I'm concerned for our very survival," he says. "We've done all we can. We can't cut any more." Keeping McConnell in Washington, he believes, is his best chance of survival.
Liperote's employees agree. "If you vote for Alison Grimes, you're voting for Obama," says Caldwell, the B&W leasing agent. "She's going to be [Obama's] puppet. She'll do whatever Obama and Harry Reid tell her." Grimes campaigned in Clay County in early July; she made protecting the coal industry a central theme of her two-day, eight country swing through eastern Kentucky.
McConnell isn't terribly popular in Kentucky either; about half of the state's voters view him unfavorably. Still, Bobby Spare considers McConnell a fierce ally of coal workers, even though his tenure in Washington has coincided with thousands of job losses. "He's the minority leader of the party; there's only so much he can do," Spare says. "It would've been ten times worse if he hadn't been there." In 2008, McConnell led a filibuster to kill the cap-and-trade bill, the strongest anti-global-warming legislation ever to reach the Senate floor. He's sponsored bills that would streamline the permitting process for mines and block the EPA from introducing new carbon emission standards on power plants. In 2013, he secured $5.2 million in grants to retrain out-of-work coal miners. If McConnell is elected and Republicans take control of the Senate, McConnell's new post as majority leader would make him an even stronger opponent of Obama's agenda, Spare says.
The degree to which McConnell's message has resonated in coal country spells trouble for Grimes. Although Clay County is a Republican stronghold, many other coal-producing counties tend to vote Democratic in statewide elections, thanks to longstanding political allegiances. Grimes needs to do well in these counties to get to Washington. But in May's Democratic primary, Grimes underperformed in coal country. In Harlan County, for example, Grimes received only 60 percent of the vote even though she was running essentially unopposed.
Eastern Kentucky's coal-producing counties "have been part of the Democratic base in this state since the Depression, and now McConnell has blown a hole in it," Cross says. "[McConnell] may have blown the hole, but the charge was set by Obama."
After a summer of hammering Grimes as Obama's conspirator, McConnell is holding onto a 4-point lead in the race, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll. Grimes's campaign is scrambling to decouple her from the president as Election Day approaches. In mid-September, they released a new ad in which the candidate fires a rifle and says, "I'm not Barack Obama. I disagree with him on guns, coal and the EPA."
Either way, the election is unlikely to have any bearing on life in Clay County. The problems in the coal industry are too severe and too structural for a single campaign season to overcome.
Still, residents here aren't ready to give up. Margy Miller is a member of a volunteer group called "Stay in Clay," which is designed to try to halt the exodus of promising young people from the area. The group has obtained funding for local improvements; they've rebuilt swinging bridges, painted murals, and launched a storytelling theater. Miller's ultimate goal is to turn the area's breathtaking mountains and rustic charm into a tourist destination, which, she hopes, could replace some of the jobs and tax revenue that coal once provided.
"Everybody asks us, why don't you leave?" Miller says. "I don't know how to explain it, but we just love it. And if we stayed here through all of those boom and busts, then we must be the most resilient place in the nation."
Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine. He can be reached at @lmullinsdc.