The Future of Coal: Appalachia’s Downturn Sends Miners West – by Kris Maher (Wall Street Journal – January 6, 2014)

Mr. Madon Leaves Eastern Kentucky; ‘It’s Getting Worse Every Day’

A downturn in coal mining threatens to end a century-old way of life in central Appalachia. Out-of-work miners are leaving Kentucky or heading to the state’s western coal region, which is part of a separate basin that stretches into Illinois and Indiana.

The thicker seams of high-sulfur coal there now can be mined less expensively after lying untouched for decades, and mines are hiring. Parts of eastern Kentucky have been in decline for years. Harlan County has about 28,000 residents today, down from 45,000 in the 1980s.

Patriot Coal Corp., of St. Louis, has held three job fairs in eastern Kentucky in the past several months in Pikeville, Hazard and Harlan, to find skilled miners. The company last month exited bankruptcy protection, which it entered in 2012, and its Highland mine in Henderson, Ky., about 120 miles west of Louisville has been hiring.

“It’d be real hard to get on anywhere now unless you go out west to work,” says Brandon Madon. The 30-year-old last month moved from Harlan to Henderson, Ky., near Indiana, for a job with Patriot. Laid off in June of 2012, he says his unemployment benefits had been set to run out near the end of 2013. Now he earns $24.92 an hour helping secure the roof in an underground mine.

Mr. Madon, who started mining coal right after high school, says he and a friend had attended a Patriot job fair in Harlan and drove six hours west together to prove they could run underground mining equipment. The men are now living out of motels but are glad to have jobs, Mr. Madon says. “We can ride it out up here,” he says. Back home, “it’s getting worse every day.”

Patriot declines to comment on personnel matters.

Coal-mining employment in eastern Kentucky fell to 8,000 workers in June from 11,900 a decade ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Meanwhile, in the state’s western coal fields, coal-mining employment rose to 4,200 workers from 2,200. Coal employment in Wyoming increased to 6,600 workers from 4,800.

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