As Kentucky Candidates Talk Up Coal, These People Are Actually Helping Out-Of-Work Coal Miners

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner

Mountaintop removal mine on the Kentucky-Virginia border at Black Mountain.

In the early 20th century, Appalachian coal mining was a focal point of innovation. New technologies let fewer miners mine millions of tons more coal than ever before, creating a boom that sustained dozens of towns even as it polluted the land and employed fewer and fewer miners over the years. Now, 21st century technology and cleaning up coal’s mess could be key to getting people back to work — if elected officials make it a priority. And that’s going to be a central focus for voters deciding Tuesday whether Mitch McConnell or Alison Lundergan Grimes will represent them in the U.S. Senate for the next six years.

What do voters want to see from their representatives? “I’d like to see more work coming into Kentucky,” said Herman Endicott, a 66-year-old former coal miner. “Getting all those miners back to work” was a top priority for Lorrean Adkins, who has many miners in her family.

Phyllis Sizemore, curator of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, has lived in Eastern Kentucky long enough to see the exodus happen over and over again. She can remember when laid off miners left in droves for Detroit’s auto industry, and Cincinnati’s factories. Now it’s her own son, a former miner, who’s had to move. He’s working as an EMT just a few hours away in Kentucky, not quite so far as Detroit. But when people talk about saving the coal industry, she said, that’s what they’re really worried about.

For decades, transition away from coal mining in Kentucky has meant people leaving. Harlan County, a historical center of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky, grew fast while mining boomed, from 10,566 residents in 1910 to a peak of 75,275 in 1940. Then began the slow slide back down, to an estimated 28,499 in 2013.

The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky.

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner

That’s the kind of thing that Jerry Rickett, CEO of the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, is trying to stop. “The skills to undertake underground mining and surface mining are pretty well-focused on just that industry,” Rickett said in a phone interview. “The individuals losing jobs in the mining sector we felt needed some retraining to enter other kinds of work. We want to focus on diversifying the economy,” Harlan County is part of a newly-founded Promise Zone, an initiative from the federal government announced in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address to aid impoverished communities across the country.

Rickett said a big part of the work needed to be bringing optimism back to the region, countering the feeling of decline and continuous job loss. The Promise Zone designation, he said, would help “rally the troops,” helping the region get an idea of what its resources are, and what it can do with them.

He pointed to work on phone lines, electric lines, and broadband Internet as a particularly good fit for former miners. “If you think about it, folks were already working with complex electrical systems in these mine environments.” Rickett also pointed to a program where people remotely perform computer and call center work for companies across the country, employing about 200 people so far, though not yet full-time. But that work requires Internet access. “One of our challenges is a lot of people don’t have high-speed internet at home in our region,” he said. “If we wanted to do one project that can impact the most people, I think getting broadband out here is probably the best one… I think that’s essential.” SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), an initiative by Governor Steve Beshear and Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers of Eastern Kentucky, has made broadband a first priority for similar reasons.

Alison Lundergan Grimes, running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in Tuesday’s election, has made rural broadband for Kentucky a campaign issue. She’s proposed a project along the lines of Google Fiber, which currently supplies free broadband in Kansas City, Kansas, and other locations, as well as even higher-speed Internet for a price. “As your senator,” she said at a March campaign appearance, “I will make federal assistance for expanding broadband capacity my No. 1 priority.”

Another area that’s going to require Congress to take the lead on bringing jobs to former mining country is on abandoned mine lands. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 set up the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to collect money from coal mining companies and spend it on reclaiming land used for mining, which is often highly toxic and unusable. Reclamation projects have been a source of jobs for coal country as well as a benefit to community health.

IMG_0010But their future is unclear. Payments into the fund expire in 2022, and they will have to be reauthorized by Congress even earlier than that to ensure there’s no interruption. But at a meeting on the future of abandoned mine lands projects in late October on the border of Kentucky and Virginia, activists were worried about the future of the fund. Even with the current level of funding, one participant said, there was a huge gap between what was needed and what was being spent. With coal production declining, the fund’s method of taxing each ton of coal mined is likely to see diminishing returns. Even worse, he said, the coal industry was already starting to lobby to lower the amount of tax it pays, so it will be a fight even to keep the tax at its current level.

Technology and the coal industry brought jobs to Appalachia in the 20th century. Technology and cleaning up after the coal industry could bring them back in the 21st, if Congress makes it happen.