Can local coal country make a comeback despite numerous challenges?

East Fairfield Coal Company_316039

NORTH LIMA, Ohio (WKBN) – The coal industry says tough environmental regulations are killing business and putting miners out of a job.

In 2008, coal made up 48 percent of the energy used in the United States. Now it’s at 30 percent — a record low in the last 30 years.

President Donald Trump claimed he was going to bring back the coal industry to its former strength — but is that even possible?Competition from natural gas

The industry is in a massive decline, in large part to the cheap price of natural gas.

Meanwhile, natural gas has seen a 13 percent increase in use in the last eight years.

Youngstown State Geology Professor Jeffrey Dick said natural gas could be trouble for coal’s once booming industry.

“Coal just can’t compete with natural gas dollar-for-dollar and that’s really what’s going to prevent it from coming back in our region.”Local coal company sees the downturn

The East Fairfield Coal Company still has mines open for clay and limestone — but its coal mines aren’t operating. Company President Tom Mackall had to permanently close one of the mines and another hasn’t been operating since the end of 2015.

“First we were hit with sulfur regulations and that made Ohio coal. It’s traditionally higher than other states, so that hurt us,” he said.

At the company’s peak, both mines sold 700,000 tons of coal a year. Last year, they sold only 80,000.

Mackall said increased regulation has decreased demand for coal. He had to layoff or transfer many of his workers.

It’s part of what Mackall and Congressman Johnson call the “War on Coal.”

“They are struggling to meet their debt, they’re upside-down financially. Just go back and listen to Clinton’s campaign statements where she said she was going to continue Obama’s policies on energy,” Johnson said.

Clinton made those remarks at a Democrat town hall last March. She said her plan was to bring clean energy into coal country, which is similar to Obama’s policies.

The end result could put many coal miners out of a job.

“Now we’ve got to move away from coal and the other fossil fuels but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy we relied on,” Clinton said.

She said her goal was to create new jobs for people like Mike Blackburn and Bobby Jones.Miners out of work

“Ten years ago, the best days, man. We were hauling coal, good top, and a lot of fun,” Bobby Jones said.

Jones’ father and grandfather worked down in coal mines. He did, too, until he was laid off a year ago.

“We called it the draft, you know? First draft, second draft. Ten guys would go then a month later, another ten guys would go and you never knew if you had a job,” he said.

The Jones family tradition stopped with the 35-year-old, who suddenly had to find another line of work.

“We was like family. I mean, we were. When you’re in deep mines, you stay close together,” said Brad Jones, Bobby’s father.

Bobby said he never thought the coal industry would take a beating as quickly as it did.

Mike Blackburn, a former coal miner, became a truck driver after being laid off from his job in the mines.

“I never really ever expected to do anything else for a living, to be completely honest with you. I thought I’d be a coal miner until I retired,” he said.

Blackburn blames increased regulations, which he said made it difficult for the mines to survive.

“It’s tough. It was tough for my kids, tough for my wife, tough for me.”

Now with many of President Obama’s legislations being undone by lawmakers, can coal stand a chance?Lawmakers undo regulations on coal production

In January, Ohio Congressman Bill Johnson introduced a resolution to undo President Obama’s Stream Protection Rule, which would have tightened the regulations that require a 100-foot buffer between coal mining and streams. It would have also required coal companies to restore streams and closed mines to conditions they were in before they were mined.

Congress got rid of that rule in February.

“It had nothing to do with keeping streams clean. It had everything to do with destroying the coal industry,” Johnson said.

While the stream protection rule was never enacted, other regulations have hit the coal industry. One was the 2015 Clean Power Plan, which requires power plants to cut their emissions by 32 percent by the year 2030. That is part of a court battle right now.

Even though Jones has a new job as a service mechanic, some of his former co-workers haven’t been as lucky. At this point, he said he’s not sure what the future holds for both himself and the coal industry.

“I thought I’d be able to retire for many years. My grandpa, my dad, they’ve been mining coal for how long. My generation just took the beating.”

Johnson said he hopes the coal industry can benefit from decreased regulation under President Trump, in a more hands-off approach by the federal government. He said coal mining operations should be regulated by the states.


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