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War on coal: Kentucky coal jobs lowest in half a century

Things keep getting bleaker for coal country in Kentucky. This quarter, the number of coal jobs hit the lowest level recorded since the state started keeping track in 1950, according to a government agency.

“These numbers are not surprising, but they’re very concerning,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

The first quarter of 2013 saw an average of 13,109 people employed in coal mines and related facilities — down 990 people from the end of 2012. The last 18 months have seen Kentucky lose 5,700 coal jobs — a 30 percent drop from September 2011 employment numbers.

Coal mining jobs nationwide took a tumble in April as the coal industry shed 1,600 jobs. While some have blamed economic factors like cheap natural gas and the fact that Appalachian coal is expensive relative to other sources of coal around the country, some have also pointed to onerous federal regulations that target the coal industry.

“After more than four years, it is clear this administration has declared a war on coal,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Eastern Kentucky has been hardest hit.

“You in eastern Kentucky have suffered the most,” McConnell said. “Coal production in the region is down by nearly 28 percent — the lowest level since Lyndon Johnson was president. As a result, 4,000 miners in eastern Kentucky have lost their jobs — a drop of nearly 30 percent.”

A report by the West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies estimated that Central Appalachian coal production will fall by 31 percent by 2020 due to economic factors and federal environmental regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This action, along with other regulatory effects from the federal government, have created an unfair atmosphere in eastern Kentucky’s coal production,” Bissett said.

The industry is being hit on both ends — mining and electrical generation. The federal government has halted about 40 mining permits in eastern Kentucky, costing the area about 3,600 jobs in coal mines and other businesses, according to the Kentucky Coal Association.

Furthermore, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity claims that more than 280 coal-fired generating units will be shut down, in part due to stricter EPA regulations.

“Regrettably, the number of coal units being forced to close continues to grow,” said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement. “Yet, EPA continues to downplay the damage its regulations are causing to the U.S. economy and to the many states that depend on coal for jobs and affordable electricity.”

However, environmental groups contend that the halting of coal mining and burning coal for electricity is good for the planet and public health.

According to the the Sierra Club, burning coal is a major contributor to global warming, leads to as many as 13,000 premature deaths annually, and adds more than $100 billion in annual health costs.

“The coal industry is cracking faster than the ice sheets, but it might not be fast enough,” Sierra Club attorney Bruce Nilles said in an interview with The Washington Post.

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