HARLAN, Ky. — The rest of the house is just waking as Scottie Sizemore plops down in a rocking chair on his front porch with a cup of coffee. The sun has yet to crest the ridge above, where mist clings like clouds that couldn’t quite make it over.
Sizemore is the fourth generation of his family to mine coal in Harlan County. He knows he’ll probably be the last.
For over a century, life in Central Appalachia has been largely defined by the ups and downs of the coal industry. Through all the bust years, there was always the promise of another boom.
There is a growing sense in these mountains that this downturn is different, deeper. That for a variety of reasons — economic, environmental, political — coal mining will not rebound this time.
State and federal initiatives are exploring everything from ecotourism and small-farmer loans to regional tax incentives for job creators. Some here pray for a regulatory climate change that would breathe new life into the region’s mines.
For Sizemore and his wife, Madonna, the answer is simple, if painful. They’re leaving.
“I feel in my heart that there is no hope for Harlan. There’s no hope for our children in the future here,” Madonna Sizemore says, tears filling her eyes.
“And I hate that.”
In the 1930s, the hollows and bottoms around here echoed with gunfire as union organizers and company “thugs” warred over who had the right to mine coal. The county earned an enduring nickname: “Bloody Harlan.”
Now, miner and operator alike are struggling to survive.
The Energy Information Administration estimates that there are about 30 billion minable tons of coal left in Kentucky. Nearly a third of those “recoverable reserves” are in the eastern coalfields.
But mining it comes at great cost — both financial and environmental.
The geological conditions in the Appalachians produced a coal that burned hotter and was lower in sulfur than mineral from other regions. But those same mountainous conditions now make it harder to get to under current regulations, and much more expensive to ship.
In late November, the spot-market price for Central Appalachian coal was $56.10 per ton, according to the EIA. That’s nearly $45 higher than coal from the Powder River Basin out West.
According to the EIA, most of what’s left in eastern Kentucky — 9.1 billion tons — can be realistically gotten only by surface or “strip” mining. But stricter interpretation of clean water and other regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts in recent years has all but ended the most cost-effective ways of extracting it.
In the past five years, half of the coal jobs in eastern Kentucky have vanished.
When Steven Fields was laid off five years ago, he was making $25.50 an hour. His last job, printing T-shirts, earned $10 an hour.
Despite lungs choked with coal dust, Fields, 49, yearns to go back underground.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re laying at home and your wife’s supporting you, instead of you supporting your wife,” Fields says, huffing and coughing as he climbs the hills above the coal camp of Verda.
His older brother went to Alabama looking for work in the mines. Fields is contemplating following him.
Many face that same difficult choice.
Madonna Sizemore balances the baby on her hip as daughter Bryannah walks by with an armful of freshly laundered coveralls, their reflective strips shining, and tosses them into the back seat of the idling pickup truck.
“I’ve got to go,” Scottie Sizemore says, leaning in to kiss 10-month-old Anastyn. “You all be careful.”
“YOU be careful,” his wife says.
In October, he took a job as safety specialist with Patriot Coal in the newly booming mines of western Kentucky.
For more than a century, eastern Kentucky outproduced the state’s western coalfields. But in the past year, the balance has shifted to the west, where seams are shallower and thicker, but higher in sulfur.
Smokestack scrubbers allow modern power plants to burn the dirtier coal. With easy access to river barge networks, western Kentucky mines are selling their product for about $12 less per ton than their Appalachian competitors.
The company Sizemore was working for had cut salaries 7½ percent and was preparing to take another 7 percent. With a mortgage and five children to support, his choice was clear.
“You can sit here and take the cuts,” he says. “Or you can choose to move and continue making the money you’re used to making.”
Since last year, the Harlan County Community Action Agency says it has given 75 workers up to $5,000 each in relocation grants.
To Donnie Reeves, leaving Harlan County felt like “just giving up.”
When he was laid off last year, Reeves applied for federal study grants and entered an industrial maintenance course. The 41-year-old is now paid well in his new job maintaining heavy equipment at one of the many parts manufacturers around Toyota’s sprawling auto plant in Georgetown.
Reeves says life is pretty good in the Bluegrass. But he misses being able to step out his back door and hike up into the hills.
“It makes you a little bit bitter,” he says, “that you can’t stay where you want to be.”
Between 1900 and the outbreak of World War II, Harlan County’s population grew nearly eight-fold, to a peak of 75,275. Today, it’s around 28,000.
For those who have chosen to stay behind, it has been a struggle.
In the past two years, Keith Johnson was laid off from one coal company, then moved to another, only to have it close. At 43, he’s gone from being a foreman making about $100,000 a year to a common miner at $20 an hour.
“I had four W-2’s last year,” he says with a laugh.
Johnson is paying on a $20,000 hospital bill incurred while working at a company that offered no insurance. He’s spent about $40,000 from his retirement fund to stay in Harlan, at least until his son graduates from high school this spring.
Harlan County is included in one of President Obama’s “Promise Zones,” giving the region priority to access federal money to create jobs and improve educational opportunities. There is also a federal-state development initiative, SOAR — Shaping our Appalachian Region.
Many feel they can’t afford to wait and see if these efforts bear fruit.
Scottie Sizemore has been sharing an apartment with another transplanted Harlan Countian. But if all goes well, Madonna and the children will join him soon.
His wife blinks back tears as she contemplates saying goodbye to her parents, who are elderly and sick. She hates the idea of having to leave her beloved mountains.
“It’s just like a piece of the Lord’s hands is here,” she says, her voice breaking.