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Thousands of coal miners out of work, politicians blame federal government

12:47 AM, Nov 13, 2012   |    comments
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For generations Appalachia's black gold has been a lifeline for the miners, the politicians, and the businessman.

"For a lot of people around here it's all they've ever known. All they've been introduced to," said former miner, Allen Miracle.

"This community here in Bell County was built around the coal industry," said Bell County Judge Executive Albey Brock.

"It's a way of life in Appalachia. We all ride the backs of coal and have been for generations," said businessman, John Combs.

Coal is everyone's currency in Bell County, Kentucky, whether you work in the mines or not.

"You got kids you got to take care of. Kids to feed. Bills to pay," Miracle said.

The eight-year mining veteran was laid off in February. Nine months later, he's still out of work. He's looking not just for another job to get his family by, but another career. One that pays somewhere close to his six-figure mining job.

"I went from making real good money to barely getting by," he said.

He has called around to mines in operation only to hear they aren't hiring. He's also running into closed mines.

10News visited a closed mine in Arjay, Kentucky where we found security officer, Jerry Smith.

"They've not mined any coal for quite some time," Smith said.

He said less than a year ago the mine was thriving. Now it sits idle. He's working security to watch over what's left.

"Before the first layoff they had 250 people, now they've got eight left," he said. "We're subject to have them come up any day and say they don't need you no more."

He asked us not to report the name of the mine.

Thousands of Appalachian coal miners have lost their jobs this year. Local and state leaders are blaming regulations from the federal government.

According to the National Mining Association, 6,000 coal miners have lost their jobs since January. The NMA said nearly all of the layoffs are in Appalachia, with Kentucky being hit hardest. The organization tracks these numbers based on public layoff notices.

The Mining Safety and Health Administration reports similar numbers for Kentucky with 2,000 miners laid off since January. Their numbers are updated quarterly.

MSHA's number show Tennessee, which has significantly fewer mines, has lost 300 mining jobs since 2009.

These layoffs and closures are what supporters from the national to the local level call the "War on Coal."

Bell County Judge Executive Albey Brock said that "war" is being waged only against Appalachian coal.

"It's an attack. There's no other way to say it. When you pass regulations without the authority of law and you pass it only on one region, only on Appalachia. The western coal fields in Colorado and Wyoming don't have the same regulations that we do. That makes it frustrating for the community," Judge Brock said.

Both the judge and Coal Caucus Committee Member Congressman Hal Rogers place the blame on the Obama administration, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The administration is not issuing permits to mine coal. They've only issued two permits in Kentucky in three years, which is a drop in the bucket. And we're seeing layoffs everyday," said Rep. Rogers, (R) District 5.

The two mining permits Congressman Rogers is referring to are for new mines. His office said the number comes from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is a part of the permitting process.

When we asked the EPA to how many permits have been issued in Kentucky since 2009, they provided 10News drastically different numbers.

The EPA said 1,200 coal mining projects have been authorized since 2009. The EPA could not clarify the discrepancy between the number two and 1,200 permits.

In 2009, the EPA announced they were being more strict on Appalachian mines due to environmental concerns, specifically water quality.

A press release at the time said they are taking unprecedented steps to reduce coal mining impacts in six Appalachian states including Kentucky.

The EPA tells 10News they review mining permits under the Clean Water Act "to ensure that permits provide adequate protections for public health and water quality. The EPA understands the importance of coal for jobs and as a vital part of the nation's energy security."

The communities say they're feeling the effects of the loss of miners.

"The loss of coal consumption is a direct reflection of who we hire and how many people we put to work," said John Combs, president of the Combs Group, a company that produces parts and equipment for the mines.

He has seen a decline in production and had to lay off 10 employees.

With no jobs in sight for the laid off looking for work, there's a feeling of hopelessness. That feeling is also felt by the politicians who recruit new industry.

"It's a tough climate to say, 'Oh well, the coal industry is tough. Let's get an automotive parts plant.' There's not a place to just go grab that. They're all going the other direction. It's dire," said Judge Brock.

They worry their lifeline is being cut off.

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