Thursday, August 28, 2014

America’s coal heartland is in economic freefall — but only the most desperate are fleeing

“My dad worked in the mines until he couldn’t pass a physical no more, and I always thought I’d do the same."

By Chico Harlan August 27 WashPost

LOGAN, W.Va. — For 51 years he’d lived in the same hollow and for two decades he’d performed the same job, mining coal from the underground seams of southern West Virginia. Then, on June 30, Michael Estep was jobless. His mine shut down, and its operator said “market conditions” made coal production unviable.

What has come since, for Estep, stands as the new Central Appalachian economic experience: a job-hunt in a region whose sustaining industry is in an unprecedented freefall. “I don’t know what to do,” Estep said as unpaid bills piled up, his cable cut to black, and his wife withdrew the last $7 from a checking account they’d held for 20 years.

What’s happening now in America’s coal heartland is not just the typical bust. Those in the industry say it’s more dire, potentially permanent, caused at once by declining reserves, a cheaper influx of competing gas and looming environmental regulations. More than 10,000 miners have lost jobs over the past two-and-a-half years in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and their plight illustrates how, even amid an economic recovery, certain segments of the workforce are being shut out.

Miners, modestly educated but accustomed to high pay, are among the hardest group of American workers to retrain. They also tend to challenge one of the tenets of economics logic — that people will go elsewhere to find jobs. Even though the economy is growing in northern parts of West Virginia, driven by a natural gas boom, those in the geographically isolated southern parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty.

(More here.)

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