Coal production edged up in Kentucky in the first three months of 2014, though there was a continued slide in tonnage and employment in the state's eastern coalfield.
The statewide production total from Jan. 1 through March 31 was up 1.4 percent over the prior three months, returning to the black after a statewide decline of 11.6 percent in 2013.
The Western Kentucky coalfield accounted for all of the increase. Production went up 5.9 percent in the western coalfield in the first quarter, while it dropped 3.5 percent in the east, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Overall employment continued to drop at both ends of the state, however, down 2.7 percent in Eastern Kentucky and 0.7 percent in Western Kentucky from the previous quarter.
There were 11,650 people employed in coal mining as of April 1. Of those, an estimated 7,235 worked in Eastern Kentucky. There are fewer people employed in coal mining than at any time since the state started tracking the number in the late 1920s.
Estimated coal employment in Eastern Kentucky averaged 14,674 people in 2011, meaning coal jobs have dropped by more than half since then.
Still, some Eastern Kentucky counties recorded job gains in early 2014 for the first time in two years, while jobs continued to wither away in others.
Coal mines and facilities in Harlan County added 78 employees in the first three months of the year, a gain of 8.4 percent, for instance, according to the cabinet estimate.
But that follows a 34.8 percent plunge in coal jobs in the county in 2013.
Bobby Napier, a Harlan County man laid off last October after 23 years in the mines, said he's heard about some coal companies hiring, but he's had no luck finding a job.
"I have heard that it's picked up some, but you can't prove it by me," Napier said Tuesday.
Napier, 43, said his wife works as a nurse aide and he received unemployment payments, so they've been able to scrape by. But his checks ended recently.
"It ain't been a real hard struggle," he said, "but it's coming."
Many people in Eastern Kentucky blame tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality for the sharp downturn in jobs, but analysts point to a number of factors.
Environmental policies have played a role, but so have competition from low-priced natural gas and from coal from other parts of the country; the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves in Eastern Kentucky after a century of mining; and higher mining costs in the region.
Production has dropped by more than a third in Eastern Kentucky over the last five years, and federal analysts have predicted no turnaround.
The state's eastern coal counties had produced more coal than Western Kentucky for decades, but that switched in 2013 and has continued so far in 2014. Western Kentucky counties accounted for 54 percent of the state's coal output in the first three months of the year.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1