Miners Weather the Slow Burn of Coal’s Demise
At some point today, you will probably flip on a light switch. That simple action connects you to the oldest and most plentiful source of American electricity: coal.
Since the early 1880s — when Edison and Tesla pioneered the distribution of electrical power into our homes — most of that power has come from the process of burning coal.
Four years ago, something started to change. First it was slow, and then this past month that change became dramatic. Coal now generates just 34 percent of our electricity, down from about 50 percent just four years ago.
Now, the loss of coal as the dominant energy source is having damaging effects on the towns that once relied on the black rock for their livelihood.
The Towns That Coal Built
In front of the historic courthouse in Webster Springs, w.va., in Webster County, a huge slab of shiny, black coal sits as a symbol of what helped build the county of about 9,000 people.
Last month, Arch Coal, the operator of one of the biggest mines in the county, announced a round of devastating layoffs — more than 1,300 employees in West Virginia and Kentucky alone. Between the other big players in central Appalachia — Consol, Patriot, Alpha — thousands more jobs have been lost. This past week, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy protection.
“I’ve never seen anything as quick as this to devastate the market, and this many layoffs at one time,” says Thomas Clark, publisher of The Echo newspaper and a mine inspector for the past four decades. “It’s been a landslide.”
Rich Lewis worked as a miner for almost two decades before being laid off by Arch Coal. He says he’s considering taking a job at another mine, but it’s not certain that mine will stay open.
A few miles from Webster Springs, outside the town of Cowen, w.va., a massive steel hopper stands silent like an abandoned roller coaster. Just a few weeks ago, it was humming with the sound of thousands of tons of black coal coming down the mountaintop mine along a giant conveyer belt and into a silo the size of a 15-story building.