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Originally published December 13, 2014 at 8:03 PM | Page modified December 17, 2014 at 4:23 PM

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Deep in coal country, pondering future without it

State and federal initiatives are exploring everything from ecotourism and small farmer loans to regional tax incentives for job creators. Others are still praying for a regulatory climate change that will breathe new life into the region’s mines.

The Associated Press


HARLAN, Ky. — The rest of the house is just waking as Scottie Sizemore plops down in a rocking chair on his front porch with a cup of coffee. It’s midmorning, but the sun has yet to crest the ridge above, where mist clings like clouds that couldn’t quite make it over.

Sizemore is the fourth generation of his family to mine coal in the hills of Harlan County. He knows he’ll probably be the last.

For more than a century, life in Central Appalachia has been largely defined by the ups and downs of the coal industry. Through all the bust years, there was always the promise of another boom.

Until now.

There is a growing sense in these mountains that this downturn is different, deeper. That for a variety of reasons — economic, environmental, political — coal mining will not rebound this time.

A thought on many people’s minds is captured in a display in the windows of a vacant furniture store up the road in the once bustling town of Cumberland: “WHAT NEXT,” it says.

If coal is really done, what, if anything, could replace it?

State and federal initiatives are exploring everything from ecotourism and small-farmer loans to regional tax incentives for job creators. Others are still praying for a regulatory climate change that will breathe new life into the region’s mines.

For Scottie Sizemore and his wife, Madonna, the answer is simple, if painful. They’re leaving.

“I feel in my heart that there is no hope for Harlan. There’s no hope for our children in the future here,” Madonna Sizemore says, tears filling her eyes.

“And I hate that.”

When coal was king

On the peeling white wall above the dilapidated Lynch High School auditorium stage, someone has scrawled a defiant message in bold, red letters 3 feet high: “HARLAN IS MORE THAN COAL.”

In 1924, when Italian masons built the ornate cut-stone school building for U.S. Steel’s model “company town,” it seemed the coal would never stop running. In its day, J.P. Morgan’s loading facilities here were the largest in the country, and Lynch had 10,000 residents.

Morgan, Henry Ford and other barons of industry were attracted by the region’s rich seams of metallurgical coal — the high-quality mineral used to make coke for steel production.

Entire cities sprang up to service the mines, but not without serious growth pangs: In the 1930s, the hollows and bottoms around here echoed with gunfire as union organizers and company “thugs” warred over who had the right to mine coal. The county earned a nickname that sticks to this day: “Bloody Harlan.”

Now, miner and operator alike are struggling to survive.

On a recent afternoon in the hills above the tiny coal camp of Verda, Steven “Fish” Fields crawled inside an abandoned mine he’d played in as a child. The 49-year-old laid-off miner pointed to a thick black line running along the wall and off into the darkness: Coal.

“It runs between 8 and 9 foot high on back in the back,” he said.

He and others here wonder why they can’t mine the untapped riches beneath their feet.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that there are about 30 billion minable tons of coal left in Kentucky — more than twice the amount pulled from the earth since settlement in the late 18th century. Nearly a third of those “recoverable reserves” are in the eastern coal fields.

But mining comes at great cost — both financial and environmental.

The geological conditions in the Appalachians produced a coal that burned hotter and was lower in sulfur than mineral from other regions. But those same mountainous conditions now make it harder to get to under current regulations, and much more expensive to ship.

In late November, the spot-market price for Central Appalachian coal was $56.10 per ton, according to the EIA. That’s nearly $45 higher than coal from the Powder River Basin out West, where huge drag lines scoop the coal from the earth like so much ice cream from a carton.

Most of Harlan County’s “big coal” — seams thick enough for a worker to walk upright in — has long since been mined. According to the EIA, most of what’s left — 9.1 billion tons — can realistically be gotten only by surface or “strip” mining.

Around here, the most cost-effective method is “mountaintop removal,” in which the hills are blasted apart to expose the coal beneath. But stricter interpretation of clean-water and other regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts in recent years has all but ended the practice.

It’s part of what critics like C.V. Bennett III call President Obama’s “war on coal.”

Bennett’s family has been running mines in Harlan County for 102 years. But unless the government backs off considerably, he’s not sure they’ll last another five.

“It’s kind of like being a ship adrift in the middle of the ocean,” says Bennett, 63, who’s done about every job underground from rock-dusting to shoveling the belts. “But you just keep hoping you’re going to hit land somewhere and somebody will see the plight of where this country’s going.”

Since January 2012, the state has lost more than 7,000 direct mining jobs; fully half of the coal jobs in eastern Kentucky have vanished in the past five years. During the period, Bennett’s workforce has dropped from more than 600 to fewer than 200.

“That hurts me more than anything else, is seeing people I’ve known and grown up with,” he says. “To have a future and then all of a sudden to have that future jerked out from underneath them — with no hope of it ever coming back.”

When Fields was laid off five years ago, he says he was making $25.50 an hour. His last job was with his family’s T-shirt printing business — at $10 an hour.

He and wife Debra have been getting by largely on her salary as a cook for the county schools. Despite lungs choked with coal dust, Fields yearns to go back underground.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re laying at home and your wife’s supporting you, instead of you supporting your wife,” he says, huffing and coughing.

His older brother went to Alabama looking for work in the mines. Fields is contemplating following him.

Many are facing that same difficult choice.

Moving on to work

Madonna Sizemore balances the baby on her hip as daughter Bryannah walks by with an armful of freshly laundered coveralls, their reflective strips shining, and tosses them into the back seat of the idling pickup.

“I’ve got to go,” Scottie Sizemore says as he leans in to kiss 10-month-old Anastyn. “You all be careful.”

Madonna Sizemore watches as Scottie’s truck rumbles over the railroad tracks and crosses the river, following the setting sun westward. By morning, he’ll be back at work underground — 340 miles and a world away.

In October, Scottie took a job as safety specialist with Patriot Coal in the newly booming mines of western Kentucky. He’s not alone.

Since last year, the Harlan County Community Action Agency has given 75 workers up to $5,000 each in relocation grants, says Executive Director Donna Pace. Many, like Scottie Sizemore, have moved to western Kentucky.

For more than a century, eastern Kentucky outproduced the state’s western coal fields. But in the past year, the balance has shifted to the west, where seams are shallower and thicker, but higher in sulfur. Smokestack scrubbers allow modern power plants to burn the dirtier coal. With easy access to river barge networks, western Kentucky mines are selling their coal for about $12 less per ton than their Appalachian competitors.

Unlike so many others, Sizemore hadn’t been laid off. But the company he was working for had cut salaries 7½ percent and was preparing to take an additional 7 percent.

With a mortgage and five children to support, the choice was clear.

“You can sit here and take the cuts,” he says. “Or you can choose to move and continue making the money you’re used to making.”

Between 1900 and the outbreak of World War II, Harlan County’s population grew nearly eightfold, to a peak of 75,275. Today, it’s around 28,000 — the lowest since 1920.

For those who have chosen to stay behind, it has been a struggle.

In the past two years, Keith Johnson was laid off from one coal company, then moved to another, only to see it close. At 43, he’s gone from being a foreman making about $100,000 a year to a common miner at $20 an hour.

“I had four W-2’s last year,” he says with a laugh.

Johnson is paying on a $20,000 hospital bill incurred while working at a company that offered no insurance. He’s spent about $40,000 from his retirement fund to stay in Harlan, at least until his son graduates from high school in the spring.

And he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Eddie Jones, 56, hunches in front of a computer screen at the Kentucky Career Center in Harlan. Nearby hangs a poster with a photo of a man in a hard hat and the acronym “H.O.M.E.” — Hiring Our Miners Everyday.

The official unemployment rate here was 11.4 percent in September, but that figure counts only those still actively looking for work. Nothing in these hills could hope to compare with what these largely high-school-educated men earned in the mines.

This particular day, Jones prints out paperwork for a railroad welding job in Corbin, more than an hour away.

Jones was laid off in May 2013. To stay near family, he’s been making do with odd jobs — painting, digging ditches, mowing grass.

He’s angry that Congress failed to extend his unemployment beyond 26 weeks. He’s aggravated with local politicians who couldn’t get the roads and infrastructure that might have made Harlan County more attractive to businesses other than coal.

“They’ve bailed out every entity in the country,” he says. “The banking industry. The airline industry. The car industry. Everybody but the American worker.”

He has a right to be angry, Jason Bailey says.

The director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, Bailey says that for years a major focus was to develop former mine sites into industrial parks. But many of those parks and spec buildings were soon abandoned — or never occupied at all.

Government has found ways to help tobacco farmers and redwood loggers transition away from those industries, Bailey says. This region must be compensated for the cost it has borne “in providing the cheap power that built the modern American economy.”

“The region has paid it in spoiled water and degraded land and black-lung disease, broken backs, torn-up roads, blasted mountains,” he says, noting these issues make it harder to diversify.

“I think there is a debt owed.”

Harlan County is included in one of President Obama’s “Promise Zones,” giving the region priority to access federal money to create jobs and improve educational opportunities. There is also the federal-state SOAR Initiative — Shaping Our Appalachian Region.

At a recent gathering in Natural Bridge State Resort Park, working groups presented a series of ideas, ranging from tax incentives to lure companies to the region, to small loans to help farmers connect with markets. Late last month, the group’s executive board voted to support legislation to establish an economic-development fund with revenue from taxes on income, sales or each ton of coal mined in the state.

The next generation

Just six years ago, Harlan County High opened — a gleaming, multimillion-dollar facility taking in students from dying schools in other parts of the county. But enrollment is down by about 10 percent from a first-year high of 1,150.

Since 1980, the county has lost nearly half of its under-35 population. The 20-24 age group in the area is projected to decline by about a quarter by the year 2050, according to the University of Louisville.

“It’s a whole generation that doesn’t have anywhere to go exactly,” says Robert Gipe, director of Appalachian studies at Southeast Community College & Technical College, near Cumberland.

No one is saying that mining will cease altogether — at least not anytime soon. But when you’ve been so dependent for so long, there are bound to be withdrawal pains — and denial.

On a recent Friday, Brock assembled a group of eight students in her classroom. When asked how many have a close family member who’s worked in the mines, every hand went up.

Senior Chelsea Niday, 18, says her father found another position within about a month after a recent layoff. But she worries about the next time.

Next fall, she hopes to go to Eastern Kentucky University. She doubts she’ll come back to Harlan County.

“There’s just really nothing here for me to do,” she says. “I don’t think I could possibly make a living here.”

Nursing and teaching are about the only viable non-coal careers these kids can think of. And with the population continuing to fall, they know those plum jobs will only become scarcer.

Jessica Stewart, 17, asks: “Is there anything out there for me to do?”

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