By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
March 28, 2017
Eddie Mounts, the son and grandson of miners, describes the past few years in coal country as a time of economic plague. Businesses closed and people scattered, he said. They went to Tennessee, North Carolina, anywhere work could be found. If they had to learn a new trade, they did that, too.
The source of the affliction, he insisted, could be traced to Washington, to the Obama administration and to regulations that Mr. Mounts, 54, said were intentionally designed to shut down the mines: “Shut them down and get them not working.”
So he was thrilled with the news on Tuesday that President Trump was signing an executive order aiming to roll back some of those regulations. “It may take a couple of years to catch fire again,” Mr. Mounts said. “But I think it will.”
It is hard to overstate the antipathy in coal country to the Obama administration’s regulatory approach, beyond even the rules that Mr. Trump has moved to undo. It included the Clean Power Plan, which would shutter older coal-fired power plants, and which the Trump administration is planning to rewrite, but also the assertiveness of federal health and safety regulation. Some saw these as mere attempts to bully the mines.
It came as little surprise that Mr. Trump, who was flanked by coal miners as he signed the executive order in Washington, won Appalachia by huge margins in November. Hope that he can reverse the fortunes of coal country still runs high, as could be seen in the reactions of politicians like West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, a Republican:
This is a widespread sentiment — even if there is little solid evidence that Mr. Trump, or any president, can make all that much of a difference.
“The market’s going to be what the market is, and that’s what’s going to set the demand,” said Robert Stinson, who operates a small coal mine in the city of War, in southern West Virginia, a few miles from the Virginia state line.
Regulations certainly played a part in coal’s downturn, Mr. Stinson said. But only a part.
Some of the fiercest coal country critics of the Obama administration have acknowledged as much. Robert E. Murray, an outspoken mining executive, recently suggested tempered expectations for a coal rebound. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, cautioned in November that the potential impact of a regulatory rollback would be “hard to tell.”
There are too many other, more decisive factors behind the decline in central Appalachian coal mining, said Sam Petsonk, a lawyer for Mountain State Justice, a legal aid organization in Charleston, W.Va.
“The reserves just aren’t there anymore,” Mr. Petsonk said, explaining that West Virginia reached its coal production peak 20 years ago, and that some of the state’s power plants had even been importing coal from elsewhere.
Still, expectations are not so tempered where the downturn is most keenly felt.
“We just came into work one day and they said we got a meeting, and they told us,” recalled Mark Gray, 58, of the day he learned that the mine where he worked in Harlan County, Ky., was in trouble. “They said we can’t go on with these regulations, we can’t go on with the way the government’s doing.”
A week before Christmas 2013 — five years into the Obama administration, but well before the Clean Power Plan was even announced — the mine shut down for good.
Many miners scattered to Virginia or other parts of Kentucky, Mr. Gray said: “They just followed the jobs but the regulations followed them.” Those left behind had little to turn to besides public assistance.
Mr. Gray, who has black lung disease, never went back to mining. But he doubts he would have retired so soon if his mine had kept operating. He said Mr. Trump’s moves might help, at least to some degree.
“It won’t ever be back the same,” Mr. Gray said. “But I hope some of the jobs come back and fix up little places like Harlan County.”
Gary Bentley, who spent a dozen years as a coal miner in eastern Kentucky, is less optimistic. Now working as a mechanic and writing about his years in the mines, he does not see a big turnaround coming. Blaming environment regulations is an old tradition, he said, one encouraged by the coal industry’s lobbyists.
But it ignores too many hard facts, he said, like the increase in mechanization and the abundance of cheap natural gas.
“It’s not going to make a comeback,” Mr. Bentley said of coal mining in central Appalachia. “But you get a certain amount of desperation, where you’re willing to believe stuff even though you know in your gut it’s not true.”
As much of coal country happily welcomed the news out of Washington, Mr. Bentley pointed to an announcement closer to home: This month the municipal utility of Owensboro, Ky., said its power plant, after 117 years, was going to phase out the burning of coal altogether.