W.Va. Miners Face Uncertain Future As Demand For Coal Drops

Aug 17, 2015
Originally published on August 17, 2015 7:48 pm
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We're going to hear now how the declining demand for coal is playing out in West Virginia, which has long relied on the industry for jobs and tax revenue. Since 2008, the price of a ton of Appalachian coal has dropped nearly 65 percent. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra has our report.

ASHTON MARRA, BYLINE: The unincorporated town of Comfort, W. Va., features two gas stations, an elementary school and the entrance to the Kanawha Eagle coal mine and prep plant. Empty trucks drive in, load up on coal and rumble out, day and night. But the last several years have been tough for the coal industry. Now fewer and fewer of those trucks roll through.

DEREK CHASE: Sometimes I wonder how they even make money.

MARRA: Thirty-one-year-old Derek Chase has worked in the industry for nearly a decade. He stopped at one of the Comfort gas stations about an hour before his night shift at Kanawha Eagle. Just days earlier, he had received a notice letting him know he'll soon be out of work.

CHASE: We've been in bankruptcy for probably close to two months now.

MARRA: Chase's employer, Patriot Coal, has filed for bankruptcy and, earlier this month, notified 1,000 workers in southern West Virginia that they'd be laid off, including those at the company's Kanawha Eagle complex. Patriot sent the warning notices on the same day that Alpha Natural Resources declared bankruptcy. Alpha is the nation's second-largest mining company. Its bankruptcy will likely mean layoffs for some of its 8,800 miners in five states, including West Virginia. This state already has a higher unemployment rate than any other. Here, it's 7.4 percent, compared with 5.3 percent for the rest of the country. And the coal losses are hurting the state's budget. Back in 2012, coal mining tax revenues made up more than 9 percent of the budget.

MARK MUCHOW: In the fiscal year '16 budget, we believe it's going to be closer to 5.4 percent.

MARRA: That's Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow. He recalls how different things were roughly a decade ago.

MUCHOW: Prices for metallurgical coal started to shoot up because there was increased demand worldwide for great expansions, particularly in places like China and India, Brazil.

MARRA: That foreign demand bolstered the price. Jeff Green is a researcher with WorkForce West Virginia. He says that price helped drive the state's mining sector to a peak in 2011. But since then, slower global growth has pushed down coal prices.

JEFF GREEN: It's probably fair to say that it's a big part of it.

MARRA: West Virginia University economics professor John Deskins says there have been other changes as well. For one, America now has an abundant supply of a cheaper, cleaner energy, thanks to fracking.

JOHN DESKINS: The natural gas boom is naturally causing electric power generators to switch from coal to natural gas to some extent.

MARRA: And Deskins says federal energy policies also have been spurring a move away from coal. Back in Boone County, where Patriot electrician Derek Chase lives, nearly 2,700 people have lost their coal industry jobs since 2011. Chase, who has a wife and three young children, already had started looking for a new opportunity, and he found one with CSX, the railroad company. The opening was for a job outside of Albany, N.Y., some 650 miles away from home.

CHASE: I've got to work somewhere, and there's not going to be any place to work here.

MARRA: But now, even his hopes for that fresh start have faded. The new job called for working on locomotive engines, but hiring has just been put on hold. Chase says that's because of a decline in rail shipments of coal. For NPR News, I'm Ashton Marra in Comfort, W. Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.