Coal production up in Eastern Kentucky, but outlook remains 'very precarious'

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 4, 2014 

Coal production went up sharply in Eastern Kentucky in the second quarter of 2014 and job losses slowed, providing some relatively positive numbers for an industry that has been battered by a steep slide in tonnage and jobs.

Of the 18 coal counties in the region, production went up in 17 from April 1 through June 30, according to a report released Monday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Overall, Eastern Kentucky coal production in the second quarter rose 15.1 percent from the first quarter, according to the report.

Production went down in Western Kentucky by 8.6 percent. A large mine in Union County was idled temporarily during the period, according to the report. That allowed Pike County to reclaim its spot as the top coal producer in the state, displacing Union County.

The Union County mine has reopened, meaning the numbers probably will change during the third quarter.

The increase in tonnage from Eastern Kentucky mines drove an increase in production statewide of 2.4 percent, which followed a first-quarter overall increase of 1.4 percent.

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the industry was "cautiously optimistic" that it might have reached a leveling-off point.

"The good news is we're not seeing that precipitous drop" as in earlier periods, he said.

There are several factors contributing to the increase in production, Bissett said, but last winter's sustained cold weather played a key role, cutting coal stockpiles at power plants.

"Coal became very much in demand," he said.

Production has gone up during the second quarter in Kentucky in each of the past several years.

Even with the increased production from April through June, the number of coal-industry jobs continued to decline, although not as sharply as in several earlier periods.

There were an estimated 11,715 people employed in the coal industry statewide as of July 1, a drop of 0.4 percent from the first three months of 2014.

Many mines in Eastern Kentucky added jobs, but coal-preparation plants shed scores of jobs, according to the report.

The number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky went down 0.5 percent, while Western Kentucky mines added a handful of workers.

But the job numbers in Eastern Kentucky were an improvement over the first quarter, when employment dropped 2.7 percent from the figure recorded in the last three months of 2013.

Eastern Kentucky has seen a crippling drop in coal jobs since 2011. Average estimated coal employment in the region during the second quarter of this year was 7,294, down from 14,716 during the second quarter of 2009.

A number of factors have combined to hamstring coal in the region, including competition from natural gas and from cheaper coal mined elsewhere in the country, tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality, and the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves after a century of mining.

Production has dropped by more than 40 percent in Eastern Kentucky since the same quarter five years ago, and federal analysts expect no turnaround.

John Sturgill, a laid-off miner from Letcher County, said his job prospects in Eastern Kentucky remained bleak.

Sturgill, who was laid off in April 2013, found work for a while at a West Virginia mine before he was laid off again. He found work at a coal-washing plant in Irvine this spring, but it lasted only two months. He got laid off May 1 and has been looking for work since.

"It's been real depressing the last two or three months," said Sturgill, who is in his early 30s and has three children.

The report on production and jobs does not reflect layoffs at an Arch Coal complex in Letcher County announced in July.

Bissett said that the industry expected growth in Western Kentucky, but that Eastern Kentucky was the most economically vulnerable coalfield in the country.

"It's still a very precarious time for our domestic market," he said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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