SOMERSET COUNTY, PA. — Like many people here who have eked out a living underground, Edward Popernack, 84, is used to seeing outsiders paint the coal industry in sharp contrasts: Past or future. Liberal or conservative. Clean or dirty.
Popernack, who started working in his father’s coal mine when he was 13 years old, knows firsthand the value — and the hardships — of the job. Coal mining ruined his lungs and almost took the life of his son, who was trapped underground for days in an accident. But it also has sustained his family and community.
The towns scattered through the coal-rich Appalachian Mountains of southern Pennsylvania were pleased to hear their names on President Trump’s lips last week as he announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Trump hailed “a big opening of a brand-new mine” — the Acosta Deep Mine, about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh — as a sign of new life for the coal industry.
But while the locals heartily embrace the 70 or more new jobs the mine will bring, some, like Popernack, a lifelong coal miner like his father and his son, don’t share the president’s view of the industry’s renaissance.
“Coal country is a great place to be from,” Popernack said as he sat behind his applesauce at the Coal Miner’s Cafe in Jennerstown. He repeated the line, emphasis on “from,” cracking a smile around broken teeth. “Do you get it?”
The future of the industry has become a charged political symbol, as Trump seeks to reverse what he and his supporters see as the Obama-era war on coal. Locals decry regulations that have strangled businesses, but they also say much of coal’s decline is due to other factors, such as the natural-gas boom that has offered a cheaper, cleaner alternative.
America’s coal mining industry is small, with just 50,000 workers today — fewer people than are employed by the fast-food chain Arby’s — down from about 170,000 in 1985, according to the Labor Department. In 2014, Somerset County had 700 coal miners among a population of 76,000.
Coal and steel have long supported this area, where the ancient Appalachian Mountains open up into green valleys dotted with cows and old cars. The billboards speak to the rise and fall of industry in the region, touting steel-lined tanks, Red Wing boots and bankruptcy lawyers.
This county delivered 27,400 votes for Trump and just 7,400 for Hillary Clinton last fall. Some of the customers who patronize the Coal Miner’s Cafe, a brick building along the Lincoln Highway where Popernack goes to drink coffee and commiserate with other “old-timers” nearly every week, stuck signs in their yards reading “Support coal, fire Obama.”
Many locals have cheered Trump’s support of the coal industry, including his March 28 order that nixed some of President Barack Obama’s climate-change efforts and his decision last week to pull out of the Paris accord.
Yet the president’s support probably had little to do with the decision to open the Acosta mine, a move driven by economic factors far beyond the horizon, said industry analysts and the company that runs the mine, Corsa Coal.
The Acosta Deep Mine focuses on metallurgical coal, which is used in making steel. Unlike thermal coal, which is used for power, metallurgical coal is a niche that is largely unaffected by the spread of natural gas and cheap renewable power.
The price of metallurgical coal crept up toward the end of 2016, after China announced that it was curtailing the number of working days at its mines. Then flooding and a cyclone in Australia shut off metallurgical coal mines from ports, sending the global price surging.
“Market analysts debate the future of Chinese steel production, the future of Australian coal mining,” said Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research company. “What there is no debate about is that the recovery of metallurgical coal prices has absolutely zero to do with any change in U.S. policy.”
Executives at Corsa Coal spoke warmly about the president’s economic platform, but they said it had little to do with their operations. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the election,” said Rob Bottegal, Corsa’s head engineer.
The company decided to move ahead with the Acosta mine in September. Its mining permit was approved in 2013, but years of low prices for metallurgical coal led Corsa to stay its development.
In December, the company broke ground on the massive pit that would be the entrance to the mine. Bottegal and his crew have since removed 320,000 cubic yards of dirt to create a giant, 120-foot-deep rectangular hole in the earth. The Upper and Middle Kittanning coal seams run around the sides of the hole like dark rings in a gritty bathtub.
Monday afternoon, Bottegal stood alongside Joseph Gallo, Corsa’s senior vice president, on a new viewing platform overlooking the hole, as workers prepared the site for the grand opening Thursday. Trump said last week that he would try to attend the event, but people here think he’s probably not going to make it.
“Do you know where the tent is going?” Gallo asked.
Bottegal pointed in the direction of an adjacent farm field, where a storm front was gathering. “The big American flag is going there,” he said, gesturing in the opposite direction, to the towering wall of the mine’s rock face.
The company expects to draw coal from the Acosta mine for a decade or more. But analysts caution that while metallurgical coal prices are high now, global factors could easily knock the bottom out of the market, leaving local workers stranded — just as they were in 2015, when Corsa idled two mines in Somerset County, cutting more than 100 jobs.
Five miles away, past the Jennerstown Speedway, customers at the Coal Miner’s Cafe were hopeful that opening a new mine would be symbolic, but they still saw it as mostly a thing of the past.
“He better take care of the miners,” Popernack said of Trump. “The coal miner is going to be a lost breed.”
His wife, Karen, said the community needs the mine: “We need the work.”
For many people here, coal mining has taken limbs, lungs and years of their lives. It poisoned their wells, turning their water, their clothes and their bathroom walls orange, and the local townspeople against one another.
But the mines also sustained them — even with the industry’s shortcomings. The orange water needed to be treated. The roads ripped up by heavy coal trucks needed to be fixed. The hungry miners needed to be fed.
And so Popernack and his wife welcome new mines, even though they are more acquainted with the industry’s faults than perhaps anyone.
Popernack’s body bears the scars of a long life of mining and farming. One eyelid droops a little over a flinty blue eye; two fingers on his left hand were lost to a buzz saw a decade ago. For nearly 20 years, Popernack has been trying to claim payments for his black lung. And 15 years ago, an accident in the Quecreek Mine nearly claimed his son.
Mark Popernack was underground on July 24, 2002, when the workers unknowingly struck an abandoned, poorly documented mine that had filled with water. As more than 50 million gallons gushed into their mine and blocked the entrance, the miners sought the highest ground they could find as the water rose for hours.
Ed Popernack, who was holding vigil above, assumed that his son was dead. But after 77 hours, Mark was the last man pulled out.
“If you’re never scared, you’re lying,” Ed Popernack said.
He’s happy about some coal jobs coming back to the area — but he wouldn’t dream of advising his grandkids to pursue them.
“Let them do whatever they want, but if they go in the mine they’re going to get a swift — ” and he mimed a kick in the rear. “I don’t want them even thinking about going in.”