LOGAN, WEST VIRGINIA — Many power plants in the United States are using natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity, reducing the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists say fuel climate change. While this may be good for the environment, for the people in the coal dependent Appalachian mountains of the eastern United States, the decline in coal production threatens their livelihood.
The Prichard coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia, is still operating. It employs 55 people with jobs that pay annual wages over $60,000 and produces more than 500,000 tons of coal a year. However, its future is in doubt. Competition from lower-cost natural gas is driving down demand for coal. But Rocky Hackworth, general manager for mine operations, says the real threat comes from increased regulation and the costs required for approval from the Environmental Protection Agency for mining operations.
“Now the last permit we got, took us over three years to get it. It cost us $1.2 million to get the permit approved before we ever started," said Hackworth. "With the uncertainty now, in the last couple of years the EPA has withdrawn permits after they were started and were issued. So do you risk it?"
Much of the money for permits, he says, goes to restoring mountaintops that were removed to access the coal underneath and ensuring that operations don't pollute the local water.
A number of mines in the area have closed, and businesses are struggling. Jim Winkler owns the American Hydraulic and Rebuild Company. It makes parts for mining equipment and used to have twice the number of staff working 10 hours a day.
“From last year to this year, we’re down 40 percent," he said. "My men are on eight hours a day or four days a week. I am getting ready to lay off four men. Two of the men have been with me for 20 years. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never laid anybody off."
Ashley Justice, co-owner of the Busted Knuckle automotive repair shop, says economic uncertainty is taking an emotional toll.
“It’s disheartening to see that we’re losing people that we’ve known our whole lives, are moving to different parts of the country for work, to retire," said Justice.
West Virginia State Senator Art Kirkendoll says the U.S. government is waging economic war on coal mining to encourage the use of cleaner fuels and reduce global warming.
“We feel like there is a little bit of a war on it, to reduce it to the point that, you know, with certain regulations where it’s hard for us to mine it," he said. "And, you know, if you have a product and you can’t sell it or you can’t produce it and mine it, then eventually you are going to go out of business anyway."
The people living in rural Appalachian areas, he says, are casualties of the war on coal.