HARLAN — When Ray Lamb got laid off from his job at an underground coal mine in Harlan County in June, he went from making about $1,000 a week to receiving an unemployment check of $415 a week.
With that, he couldn't pay both rent and child support, so he gave up his apartment and moved into a small camper trailer on his brother's property, Lamb said.
Those are the types of choices confronting others in the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, where an estimated 2,000 layoffs this year have hurt the linchpin of the economy.
"I've been in the mines 35 years and you can't buy a job right now," said Lamb, 58.
The number of coal jobs in Kentucky swings from year to year, but the mass layoffs this year go beyond what is typical in one area of the state. For instance, the average number of coal jobs statewide dropped by 1,180 from 2009 to 2010 — the biggest annual swing in the 2000s — but went back up in 2011, according to figures from the state Office of Employment and Training.
Unlike previous elections, coal has played a prominent role in the race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Coal also has been a contentious issue in the 6th District Congressional race between Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Andy Barr. There hasn't been any significant mining in the district for some time, but a number of coal companies have offices in Lexington and many voters are interested in the issue because of environmental and other concerns.
Coal surfaced as an issue in the presidential race because of Ohio, a coal-mining state and a pivotal battleground state that both campaigns see as a must-win to keep or take the White House. Kentucky has few electoral votes and Romney is likely to win the state comfortably, so neither candidate has courted the state's eastern coalfield as they have Ohio's.
If the presidential candidates had, they would have heard suggestions to spend more money on research to burn coal more cleanly, or to find other uses for it.
"It would solve our problems if they would try to use coal for other things," such as making shingles, said Jerry Asher, of Harlan County, a former miner.
The message from most people, however, is that the federal government should back off on environmental regulations that they think are crippling coal production.
Under Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency has used new standards to judge surface-mining permits, with the goal of protecting water quality, and has moved to further restrict power-plant emissions in ways that would make it more expensive to burn coal.
"The EPA's regulating us to death," said Terry Lewis, a disabled miner who helps run a small convenience store in Lynch, a historic mining town.
"You've got to have the EPA, but too much regulation can hurt, too."
Of course, "too much" regulation is a matter of opinion. Environmentalists have applauded the efforts to police surface mining and power-plant emissions.
Stanley Sturgill, a retired federal mine-safety inspector who lives up Main Street from the market, said the EPA was right to crack down on surface mining.
"I support mining 100 percent underground, but I do not support the devastation of these mountains and our water systems," he said.
Sturgill said others give him a "terrible time" about his call to end surface mining, but he doesn't care.
The region needs more training for people to move into jobs not dependant on the coal industry, he said.
Coal industry analysts say other factors are more responsible for the wave of coal layoffs in Eastern Kentucky this year than regulations.
One key factor is competition from cheap natural gas.
Developments in drilling technology have unlocked vast reserves of natural gas, leading to a big decline in the price.
Natural gas is 40 percent cheaper than a year ago, said Manoj Shanker, an economist with the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
Many power plants have switched from coal to gas as a result, Shanker said.
Competition from Western U.S. coal, which sells for about $9 a ton compared to about $60 for Kentucky coal, and the slowdown of the Chinese economy also have hurt production in Eastern Kentucky, Shanker said.
"The EPA rules coal advocates vehemently oppose have had little or no impact on the recent layoffs," Shanker said.
Some of those rules aren't yet in place, he said.
A declining demand
The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected that coal production in Central Appalachia will drop from the 2010 level of 186 million tons to 92 million tons in 2018.
Michael Mellish, a coal analyst with the agency, said the rising cost of mining in Central Appalachia, which includes Eastern Kentucky, is the key driver in the predicted decline.
Mining costs in Eastern Kentucky are higher in part because of the hilly terrain and the fact that many of the best seams were mined earlier, leaving reserves that are more costly to mine.
It is difficult to disentangle the impact of environmental regulations from other factors when projecting the decline in coal production in Central Appalachia, Mellish said.
"For example, without the threat of impending EPA regulations, how much lower would announced retirements of coal-fired generating capacity be?" Mellish said.
Right or wrong, however, the belief that federal regulations have torpedoed the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky is pervasive.
It's a key reason Obama will likely lose Eastern Kentucky by a wide margin, even in counties where most people are registered Democrats.
James Philpot, who was laid off in June from his job at an underground mine in Harlan County, said a number of factors have cut demand for Eastern Kentucky coal, including completion from natural gas, the slowdown in the Chinese economy and even last winter's warm weather.
Philpot, who started mining in 1978, said he wouldn't know where to look for another mining job. He's trying to qualify for black lung disability payments.
"There just ain't much around here other than mining to do that really pays anything," he said.
Russell Griffey, who counts himself lucky to still have a job cleaning beltlines that move coal at an underground mine on the Harlan-Bell County line, said if air pollution is the issue, there should be more research into ways to burn coal more cleanly.
"There has to be a better way of purifying it," he said.
Obama has touted his push for more federal spending on clean coal technology.
However, Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the technology the president speaks of is carbon capture and storage, which is not currently available for use at base-load power plants.
'Everything revolves around coal'
The mining layoffs this year have caused real pain in Eastern Kentucky, and a palpable concern for the future.
Joe A. Harris, who owns a commercial printing shop in Pineville, said his business from coal mines, furniture stores and car dealerships is down.
A jewelry store across the square in Pineville closed, and other business owners have told him profits are down, Harris said.
"We're scared to death not knowing what's going to happen," said Harris, who organized an event in August in which an estimated 15,000 people lined U.S. 25 in Bell County to show support for miners.
"If we lose coal, it will finish us up."
Outside Pineville, volunteers at the Lighthouse Mission Center said the center is seeing more people who need help with food and clothing.
The downturn in the coal industry has played a role in that, volunteers said.
"We are seeing more people come in here that are in a suicidal point of view," said Carolyn Lawson, a volunteer at the faith-based mission. "We're seeing more people at the bottom and they're ashamed of having to come in here and ask for help."
Kathy Cody, another volunteer, said her son lost his job at a mine and had to go out of state for a truck-driving job. He sees his family far less now, Cody said.
To many, the uncertainty in coal feels like a shift in the ground beneath them.
"Everything revolves around coal around here," said Frank Dixon, who lives at Lynch and works in maintenance at a surface mine in Letcher County.
Dixon and others think many people elsewhere don't realize how important coal is in coal country, or acknowledge how important it is to the nation's electricity supply and economy.
Dixon said he encouraged his three children to look for jobs outside the coal industry.
"If something was to happen to my job, I have no earthly idea what I would do," he said.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655.Twitter: @billestep1