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WKYT Investigates | The future of coal country

Coal jobs are expected to decline even further in the near future. Where does that leave communities that once relied on them?
Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 2:40 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The entire city of Lynch, Kentucky once centered around coal.

In fact, it still does - much of the town remains intact, with the portal to its underground mine now serving as an exhibition - but not in the way it once did.

Lynch was a company town built in 1917 by U.S. Steel. The tipple still stands here, no longer in use, but a reminder of what used to be in Harlan County.

[PHOTOS: Lynch, then and now - 100 years later]

“When coal was going on good and strong, we was a booming economy,” Erik Hubbard said. “And throughout the years to see our economy and see our people kind of downfall, we’re trying to figure out ways to be creative and make things happen.”

Hubbard, sitting on his motorcycle in the parking lot of what was once a satellite bank location in Lynch, is executive director of Backroads of Appalachia. The non-profit organization is trying to drive in motorsports tourism to the area, hosting events and publicizing the region’s many roads that are appealing to drivers and bikers.

“We want people to be active,” Hubbard said. “We want people to stay. We want people to live here. We want people to grow here with their families.

“Hope,” he said, “is the most important thing for our region.”

Hubbard’s work is just one of many ongoing efforts from folks who want to see this place humming again after decades of declining coal jobs - and as efforts ramp up to further transition the United States away from fossil fuels.

Kentucky coal production peaked in 1990, state reports show, with more than 173 million tons that year. Nearly 131 million tons of that came from eastern Kentucky. Last year, amid the pandemic, the state produced just over 24 million tons, with only eight million tons from eastern Kentucky, according to federal data.

[FOLLOW THE DATA: View Kentucky’s coal production dashboard]

“Even though those jobs were really important, and the loss of those jobs is a very real tragedy for those miners and their families and their communities, it’s a tragedy that sits on top of a disaster,” said Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association. “And the disaster is the reality that these communities have been economically distressed for decades.”

The Mountain Association, previously known as the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), and other organizations have worked for years to help businesses and workers in the region.

It is an area that has long relied on coal, but reduced demand and increased automation have hurt. Known Kentucky coal mine employment peaked in 1948 after World War II.

“There’s not a magic wand you can wave and reverse major global economic trends,” Hille said, “and that’s the force that’s been driving these changes.”

In the next few years that could become even more of the case.

Just last month President Biden announced a plan to slash emissions over the next decade, part of a goal to reach 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.

“The transition that we’re in to clean energy is actually - and has been for a while - causing struggles in certain communities, particularly coal communities and also power plant communities,” National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy told WKYT in a recent interview via Zoom.

McCarthy, currently the White House’s top climate adviser and formerly the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, said it is a priority of President Biden’s to create jobs for folks in communities that are struggling from past mine or plant closures and are vulnerable to future closures.

“We’re not going to turn our eyes away from that,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to look at these communities directly and find a way to give them the economic revitalization they deserve at this point.”

[READ: Initial Report to the President on Empowering Workers through Revitalizing Energy Communities]

In their initial report to the president, the working group McCarthy chairs on the issue - the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization - recommends focusing federal investments in areas with high concentrations of coal-dependent jobs. They found that eastern Kentucky is the No. 2 most coal-dependent area in the country.

“These are the people that really powered the industrial revolution,” McCarthy said. “They are not the people we are willing to let leave behind.”

Yet time after time, they have been left behind.

“It’s true,” Hille told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer.

“A lot of good has been done: Highways, water systems, sewer systems - there’s been many improvements across the region over the last 50 years,” he said. “But it’s never been at the scale needed to really build a new economy.”

The Mountain Association has provided input for the White House report, which, among other things, identified close to $38 billion in existing federal funding for investments in coal and power plant communities when it comes to infrastructure, reclamation, environmental remediation, job creation and community revitalization.

Hille - and other experts on the ground in Appalachia - says it is not just about the government putting the money where their mouths are, but keeping the money where the mines were - making sure money spent stays in those communities.

“Local economies are not that hard to understand,” he said. “It’s a lot like your checkbook - you’ve got to look at the money coming in and the money going out. And in the long run we want to be raising that level of assets in the community.”

Whether they like it or not, many organizations in the region recognize that all of the coal jobs of the past are not coming back. So instead they are working to find new ones.

[MORE: WKYT Investigates]

“We’re seeing new opportunities every day,” said Erin Deaton with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.

EKCEP, which offers several services, including working with former miners and their families, says it has helped connect over 3,000 job seekers since 2015 through its Teleworks USA program, which helps people train for and find remote jobs so they can continue living in the region and work from home.

“We know that through remote work, we’re able to meet people where they are,” Deaton said. “We like to say, ‘Work is something you do, not somewhere you go.’”

Making this somewhere to go is the entire goal of Backroads of Appalachia. They have turned that old satellite bank location into a welcome center for bikers and drivers encouraged to run these roads and spend money at local businesses.

“Twenty-eight Porsches sitting in the Bailey’s Hoagie Shop parking lot was just amazing,” Wes Bailey, owner of the new restaurant that bears his name in Cumberland, said of the scene at his place on one weekend. “We fed them, we took care of them.”

Bailey opened his restaurant in September, but said he felt confident in doing so, even in the middle of the pandemic, because of the increasing number of visitors arriving in the area.

“They want to get out of the cities,” he said, “and they want to come here and see the things we have to offer.”

One of the only things holding the region back from increasing tourism, experts say, is the scarcity of hotel accommodations in the area. (To help address this problem, the Mountain Association hosts “How to Airbnb” workshops to help local residents offer short-term rentals to out-of-town visitors.)

Efforts to show off the area are growing. Backroads of Appalachia is now expanding its reach using grant money from the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program, a grant program designed to help communities like this one in a number of ways.

Projects like these - large and small - showing creativity, a willingness to adapt, are leaving people across Appalachia and America, from Whitesburg to the White House, hoping are signs of a brighter day ahead.

The interagency working group hopes to make it easier for businesses and organizations to access the resources they need. The group is expected to make more recommendations to the White House by the end of the year.

Experts say the key to whatever federal help arrives in the region is that folks in these coal communities get involved in the process of shaping their own future.

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