In Kentucky, The Coal Habit Is Hard To Break

Jan 12, 2016
Originally published on February 7, 2016 9:56 pm

Joe Moore stood near a sign reading: "Authorized Personnel Only."

"I used to be authorized," he said.

Moore is a coal miner. The sign was at the entrance to the mine that had laid him off the previous day. The Alliance Coal facility had closed — a symptom of the coal industry's rapid decline.

The industry is fading even as the rest of the economy grows. The Energy Information Administration estimates that nationwide coal production dropped by as much as 10 percent in 2015. Further declines are expected this year. This week Arch Coal, the nation's second-largest producer, filed for bankruptcy protection. Companies are squeezed between fierce competition and efforts to fight climate change.

'You Need To Find A Different Occupation'

It's a historic challenge to a business, and a way of life, in places like Webster County, in the rolling countryside of western Kentucky. Spend time with miners there and you quickly understand how hard it is to give up an industry that has supported generations of miners since this country's earliest days.

As he drove away from the mine, Moore accidentally made a left turn — inadvertently following the route home from work that he had driven for years. The force of habit was hard to break.

Moore, 57, worked in various mines for 39 years, despite a doctor's advice received long ago.

"I had a chest cold," he recalled. "And I went to the doctor and they had you take your shirt off and my back was just all ripped up. Great big scratches in it."

The scratches came from the ceilings of mine tunnels, which are often too low to stand in. "And he said, 'Who's been beating you?' And I said, that's just from work. And he said, 'You need to find a different occupation.' He said, 'You are damaging your body.' And I said, 'Well, great. You want to adopt me? Because I don't know of anything else I can do.'"

In exchange for long hours underground, which he often loved, Moore says he earned more than $100,000 per year, including overtime pay.

That level of compensation is not uncommon. When we toured a Webster County mine that is still open — the Dotiki mine, operational since 1967 and owned by Alliance Coal — our producer Ashley Westerman had a surprise. Westerman, who is from Webster County, discovered one of her elementary school classmates working underground as a foreman.

She went off to an East Coast university; he ended up in the mine. Depending on his overtime in a given year, it's likely that he is the one who is paid more.

'I Still Get Excited Every Day'

Money aside, there is something alluring to many people about wandering a vast network of underground tunnels and operating massive high-tech machinery.

In the Dotiki mine, we saw men at work (coal miners in this area are mostly, though not entirely, men). One man had positioned a machine called a continuous miner up against a wall of coal.

A roller turned. Teeth on the roller chewed up the wall. In 38 seconds, a conveyor belt dumped about 16 tons of glittering rock into a waiting truck.

"I still get excited every day," said Gary Thweatt, the mine supervisor, who was showing us around.

And if conditions are sometimes hard, many miners are accustomed because their ancestors mined before them.

We had dinner at the home of a coal-mining family. The family patriarch and matriarch are Dan and Mary Harris, both in their 80s.

Until he retired, Dan was a coal miner, like his father, and his father before that.

"He's a workaholic," Mary said of her husband. Dan described absurdly long days, entering the mine about 1:30 in the afternoon and continuing until the next morning, "about 9:30 when they run me out."

Their daughter Zeean was married for a time to a coal miner.

Zeean's son initially went to college instead of the mines. "He stayed two days," Zeean said. Then he came home. Within a few months after that, he was mining coal.

Webster County residents know fossil fuels are linked to climate change. Many do not deny the science — "I know we're not helping," one miner said. But people do minimize coal's role, and play up the industry's importance. We saw a bumper sticker reading: "If you don't like coal, don't use electricity."

It has been a winning argument, until now.

'I'm Just Caught Up In It'

"For the first time in my career, I've actually questioned if I'll be able to retire from coal in 20 years from now," said Heath Lovell of Alliance Coal, who met us at Webster County's last mine. "Depending on what happens in November with the presidential election, I think that will go a long way to determining what does coal's future look like in the next 10, 15, 20 years."

Alliance Coal blames President Obama for its trouble. Regulators cracked down on safety. And the president's Clean Power Plan targets electricity generated with coal.

In a December interview with NPR, the president said he understands why people think he's waging war on coal. But he argued the industry's real problem is competition. Surging natural gas production drove down energy prices. That is indeed part of Webster County's story. Nearby power plants are switching from coal to gas.

Having lost his job, miner Joe Moore is philosophical about President Obama, who got Moore's vote in the first election, but not in the second.

"You know, I could sit here and [yell at him], but, you know, he's done what he set out to do. I'm just caught up in it."

He's caught up in epic economic change.

Moore is following this year's campaign. He's interested in Democrat Bernie Sanders, and in Republican Ted Cruz. Each is cultivating blue-collar voters.

Meanwhile, Moore has to work out his future.

"After 39 years of steady going I think I'm going to take a minute and figure some things out," he said.

He does have options. His termination came with an offer of assistance if he returns to school. Then again, he might try for a job in a mine that's still open. It's not easy to let go of coal.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep with a story of a man out of work. He's a coalminer in Kentucky. His industry is fading, even as the wider economy grows. The miner met us on his very first day off the job.

Hey, how are you?

JOE MOORE: Pretty good. Joe Moore.

INSKEEP: Hey, Mr. Moore.

Joe Moore wear a beard and a Tennessee Titans cap. He opened his car door, brushed aside the empty cigarette packs on the seats and drove us through Webster County in western Kentucky. Nationwide production dropped as much as 10 percent last year. Companies are filing for bankruptcy, including a big one just yesterday. We saw a sign of the trouble when Joe Moore drove us to his former workplace.

MOORE: Authorized personnel.

INSKEEP: That's you. You're authorized.

MOORE: Well, I used to be authorized.

INSKEEP: The previous day he'd signed papers confirming his termination as the mine shut down.

MOORE: I don't work here anymore (laughter).

INSKEEP: Coal faces unprecedented competition as well as President Obama's long-term moves against climate change. Joe Moore lost a job that, with overtime, paid him $100,000 per year or more. And as we drove, he recalled a moment during his decades of scuttling through tunnels that were often too low to stand up straight.

MOORE: I had a chest cold. I was a young man then, and I went to the doctor. And they had you take your shirt off, and my back was just all ripped up, very big scratches in it.

INSKEEP: From the ceiling?

MOORE: Right.

And he said - who's been beating you? And I said it's just from work.

And he said you need to find a different occupation.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MOORE: Said you are damaging your body. I said well, great. You want to adopt me? - because I don't know of anything else I can do.

INSKEEP: He stayed in the mines 39 years. We were driving away from the mine as we talked, and Moore accidentally made a left turn.

MOORE: Hold on. This is my way home. That's why I turned here (laughter).

INSKEEP: The force of habit was too strong to break. Webster County, Ky., does not want to break its coal habit. Though one mine closed here, another has been producing coal since 1967.

INSKEEP: We reached it by taking a steel elevator straight down.

GARY THWEATT: We're 530 feet right here.

INSKEEP: We rode down with Gary Thweatt, the mine supervisor.

THWEATT: I still get excited every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR CHIME)

INSKEEP: The underground tunnels spread out like a street grid. You turn left. You turn right. And at the end of one street, a machine faced a black rock wall.

THWEATT: See those teeth? It's going to knock the coal down, load it in the conveyor and it'll come back the conveyor into the shuttle car.

INSKEEP: In the dim light, we saw the dark glitter of coal.

How much coal just came off that conveyor belt?

THWEATT: About 16, 17 tons.

INSKEEP: In, like, 30 seconds?

THWEATT: Right - 38, matter of fact.

INSKEEP: Thirty-eight seconds to be exact.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

INSKEEP: It's a profitable business, even in this time of decline. Our producer Ashley Westerman grew up in Webster County. And in the tunnels, she saw a familiar face.

THWEATT: This is Ryan Hammers. He's our section foreman.

INSKEEP: Hey. How are you, Ryan?

ASHLEY WESTERMAN: Oh, Ryan.

THWEATT: You know Ryan?

WESTERMAN: Ashley Westerman - we went to high school - we went to elementary school together, actually.

THWEATT: Elementary school?

WESTERMAN: Yeah.

THWEATT: It's a reunion.

INSKEEP: Ashley went on to college. Ryan ended up in this mine. Depending on his overtime, Ryan is likely the one who is paid more. It's attractive for those who don't mind the conditions. And many miners are used to it because their ancestors mined before them.

We had dinner at the home of a coal mining family, and we talked while our host Zeann Bumpus, or Z, prepared dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLANGING)

ZEANN BUMPUS: Didn't break a thing.

INSKEEP: You need help back there 'cause...

BUMPUS: No, I'm breaking things fine.

INSKEEP: I'm breaking things fine, she said. She made us a dessert called chess bars - eggs, butter, cream cheese and so much sugar it hurts your head. Z's parents sat in the living room. They're Dan and Mary Harris. Until he retired, Dan was a coalminer, like his father and his father before that.

So how long were you underground? How many hours?

MARY HARRIS: A lot of time 16, 17 hours.

DAN HARRIS: I've done work - I guess I went in about 1:30.

M. HARRIS: And stayed till maybe 8 the next morning.

D. HARRIS: No, it was about 9:30 when (laughter) they run me out.

M. HARRIS: And then he'd be up and be ready to go back at noon.

INSKEEP: He could hardly stand to leave work, even though he sometimes saw miners maimed or killed. Dan Harris's daughter Z was married to a miner. Z's son only briefly considered a different way of life.

BUMPUS: He went to college and he stayed two days...

INSKEEP: ...After which he came home.

BUMPUS: And not long after that, he went to the mines...

INSKEEP: ...Continuing a pattern as old as the United States. Webster County, Ky., residents know fossil fuels are linked to climate change. Many do not deny the science. I know we're not helping, one miner said. But people do minimize coal's role and play up the industry's importance. We saw a bumper sticker reading, if you don't like coal, don't use electricity. It's been a winning argument - until now.

HEATH LOVELL: For the first time in my career, I've actually questioned if I'll be able to retire from coal in 20 years from now.

INSKEEP: Heath Lovell of Alliance Coal met us at Webster County's last mine.

LOVELL: Depending on what happens in November with the presidential election, I think that will go a long way in determining what does coal's future look like over the next 10, 15, 20 years.

INSKEEP: Alliance Coal blames President Obama for much of its trouble. Regulators cracked down on safety, and the president's Clean Power Plan targets electricity generated with coal.

In an interview with us, the president said he understands why some people think he's waging a war on coal, but he argued the industry's real problem is competition. Surging natural gas production drove down energy prices, and that is indeed part of Webster County's story. Nearby power plants are switching from coal to gas.

Which explains why laid-off miner Joe Moore had time to join us for lunch at a burger joint.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITRESS: Cheeseburger, plain?

MOORE: I'll take it.

INSKEEP: Moore is philosophical about the president, who got Moore's vote in the first of his two campaigns.

MOORE: You know, I could sit here and say - oh, he's (vocalizing nonsense), but, you know, he's done what he set out to do. I'm just caught up in it.

INSKEEP: Caught up in epic economic change. Moore is following this year's campaign. He's interested in democrat Bernie Sanders and in republican Ted Cruz. Each has been cultivating blue-collar voters. Before voting, of course, Joe Moore has to work out his future.

Do you have plans, or are you going to figure it out as you go?

MOORE: Well, after 39 years steady going, I think I'm going to take a minute, you know, and figure some things out.

INSKEEP: He does have options. His termination came with an offer of assistance if he should return to school. Then again, he might try for a job in a mine that is still open. It is not easy to let go of coal.

That is a river of coal.

LOVELL: Yes, it is. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.