The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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."

Michael Estep, his son, Jobe, and Jobe’s live-in girlfriend, Kristen Goodman, prepare to settle in on their front porch, where they spend a lot of time, in Logan, W.V. Estep was laid off June 30, when the mine he was working at shut down (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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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.

“This is where you grew up; you can fish, you can hunt. Land is cheap. Chances are your grandfather owned that property,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “So leaving that to go somewhere else where you’ll be stuck in Toledo doesn’t sound very attractive.”

Mining work is hardly a panacea, and Estep often talks about its perils — the cave-ins he escaped, the safety regulations his bosses never heeded, the neck and back injuries he sustained and never officially claimed, for fear of losing his nonunionized job.

But the job also had appeal. Mining earned Estep about $60,000 per year. He burned through it. Bought two small homes side-by-side across from a baseball field. Bought a 2007 Silverado that guzzled a gallon every 18 miles. Bought a pool table, guns, food for his hunting dogs, meals out for his family, which included his younger son, Jobe, 22, and Jobe’s girlfriend, Kristen Goodman. Not bad for a ninth-grade drop-out, Estep often thought.

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

And now Estep tried to sort through all of his options. He wanted to stay in the mines, he wanted to stay in the area. But those options also felt risky. Staying meant trying to tough it out on a half-year of $764 biweekly unemployment checks, one-third of his usual take-home pay. It meant subsisting on food pantry hand-outs until and if he found work, and it meant sweating over every $135 monthly payment he made out-of-pocket for painkillers that dulled his old injuries.

Leaving was another option, but one he was loath to take. Estep wasn’t sure he even had the skills to do it. He’d never been on a plane, never seen a beach, never lived outside of Logan County. He knew all about the environmental downsides of mining — the denuded hillsides; the carbon emissions — but he also figured 20 years of training in underground operations all but consigned him to keep working in coal.

“I’d go right back in tomorrow if they offered,” Estep said six weeks after he’d been laid off. “Kind of a complicated thing, my reasoning. But when you’re out of a job you’re powerless.”

Moving away from mining

He had one hope. A representative from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had called him up and told him about a seminar on fresh opportunities. All Estep had to do was show up at the meeting. So Estep told his wife, Vada, that he might get a job back at the mines, and he showed up one morning at the meeting hall with his reading glasses, a rumpled birth certificate and a resume that his son’s girlfriend had typed out on Microsoft Word. Jobe, deciding between mining or a second year of junior college, came along. They were 45 minutes early.

“I thought I was there for a job interview,” Estep said.

He wasn’t. Instead, he’d walked unknowingly into one of the only programs that tries to help coal miners leave coal mining. Until 2012, the UMWA had used its grants from the Department of Labor to train new miners. But suddenly mass layoffs and closures, coming as the American gas industry took off, made that mission seem preposterous. So the UMWA began providing up to $5,000 for miners to finish degrees or pick up new certifications. Some have used the money to become $16-per-hour truck drivers, one of the few licenses they can obtain before unemployment benefits run out.

Twenty-two miners sat in the room, and they fidgeted with their ballcaps or spit tobacco into empty soda bottles as Joe Murphy, a UMWA official, told them that “this is about the worst it’s ever been” for the coal industry.

“Coal is what’s made our country the best on God’s green earth,” he said, but then he told them jobs might not be coming back.

“You’ve got homes, mortgages, bills, and the industry you’ve worked in all this time is gone. But life, it’s changing. Those who can adapt can be successful. Don’t sell yourself short. Good hard-working folks, y’all are.”

Estep glanced toward the door and fantasized about darting out of a room he never intended to be in. But he didn’t want to make a scene or embarrass Murphy, himself a former miner. He knew two other guys in the room, all laid off for weeks, and their experience told them this bust was different — more permanent — than other, cyclical coal downturns. For one thing, southern West Virginia coal mines were facing a natural endpoint; long-gone was the easy-to-access coal, and operators were now spending more money to access harder-to-reach seams. Second, an Environmental Protection Agency proposal would target emissions from coal-fired power plants. “Obama’s war on coal,” some West Virginian politicians called it.

“As a state, we have dealt with [the coal downturn] more from a state of denial, that it’s all caused by Obama and EPA, and if we just scream a little harder it will go back to what it was,” said Jeff Kessler, president of the state senate. “And I’m just not sure that is going to happen.”

Before the miners were allowed to go home, they had to take a high school equivalency test, just to determine the kind of retraining for which they’d be suitable. Murphy passed out answer sheets, and Estep felt his heart rate quicken. If he had to hurdle reading and math just to become a truck driver, could he manage even that?

When he came to the 25-question math section, Estep filled in the first six bubbles. Then he came to the algebra and stopped cold.

Jobe, sitting next to him, quietly suggested Estep copy his answer sheet.

Estep shook his head no, because he always considered himself an honest worker, and instead folded up his test, pushing it to the edge of his desk.

He was done.

He went home, drank a generic Mountain Dew, took two blood pressure pills to calm his nerves, and briefly choked back a few tears.

“A hundred-and-some times x — I’ve never seen anything like that,” Estep said soon after, while sitting on his porch. “I’m just embarrassed. I felt so stupid when I sat there. But like I’ve said, take someone from college and have them do my job [underground].”

The call of coal

For Estep, the experience reinforced that he couldn’t leave coal mining. And for the first time he thought about leaving southern West Virginia. Even as coal loses ground to gas, some coal-producing regions — particularly Wyoming and Illinois — still have jobs. And that night, Jobe pulled out his girlfriend’s laptop and searched for coal positions, Web sites promising “click here” and “get a job today.” There were openings in Bagdad, Ariz., and Tyrone, N.M. Jobe made cold calls and got nowhere.

Then he tried another contact, in northern West Virginia, and here he heard about something just tempting enough.

Yes, said Rick O’Dell, who works for a contract company that helps fill mining positions, you and your dad can both come up to Wheeling, W.Va. Nothing promised, but I think I can find jobs for both of you. Just pass a drug test, a background test, make sure your certifications are up to date.

Estep pondered the idea for two days. They’d rent or live in a hotel? — no, too expensive. Maybe they’d borrow a relative’s trailer. The pay was less — $20 per hour instead of $25 — but Jobe would be making money too, his first mine job. That would roughly double the family income, but it would also lessen the odds of Jobe ever returning to community college for a nursing degree.

“Once he starts in the mines, he’ll be a coal miner,” Estep said. “If he goes farther in school, it will amaze me.”

The Esteps made the first preparations to go. They rented out one of their homes. Their savings nearly at zero, and still weeks to go before he could dream of a paycheck, Estep pawned off a $1,200 gun for $200. Jobe sold off a pool table for some spending money. Estep had long considered himself a risk-taker underground, installing rock bolts into mines and tunnels — a dangerous job — but this was a different kind of gamble, a bet on a plan that he acknowledged was at best half-formed.

“It ain’t guaranteed or nothing,” Estep said. “I don’t know if it’s a plan. But it’s the best I’ve got.”