In 2009, coal-industry employment in Eastern Kentucky averaged 14,100 people, who were busy digging and blasting 75.3 million tons of coal from the steep hills. In 2014, employment at the region's mines averaged 7,288, and production totaled just 37.5 million tons.
The numbers show the sharp fall of the coal industry in a place where it was long the linchpin of the economy. The state's western coalfield fared better by comparison in 2014, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Coal production in Eastern Kentucky dropped 5.3 percent in 2014 but went down only 2.2 percent in Western Kentucky, according to the report. That resulted in an overall drop in production of 3.7 percent statewide, the report said.
The number of jobs in the industry dropped 2.8 percent statewide, but Eastern Kentucky accounted for nearly all the loss.
Some counties in the region saw job increases from 2013 levels, but overall there were 300 fewer miners working in Eastern Kentucky in the final three months of 2014 than at the same time a year earlier, according to the report.
In Western Kentucky, the drop was only 16 jobs. However, a major layoff at two mines in Union County was announced too late to be included in the relatively stable production and job numbers for the western coalfield.
Patriot Coal announced in December it was closing the Highland No. 9 and Dodge Hill No. 1 mines.
Together, the mines employed more than 600 people, accounting for 14 percent of the coal jobs in Western Kentucky, said Aron Patrick, who analyzes energy issues for the Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The losses at those two mines will show up in the first quarter of 2015.
Statewide, there were an estimated 11,574 people working in the coal industry in Kentucky at the end of the year, the lowest total since the state began keeping records in the 1920s.
A number of factors have combined to cause the steep drop in Eastern Kentucky, including competition from natural gas and from cheaper coal from elsewhere in the country; tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality; and the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves, which drives up mining costs.
"The best coal in this part of the country ... it's already mined out," said Michael Joseph, who had been a miner for 38 years before he was laid off in June from an Arch Coal underground mine in Letcher County where he had been the superintendent.
More than a third of the coal jobs in the county disappeared in 2014, according to the state report.
Joseph said some laid-off miners are taking classes in hopes of switching careers. Some are getting by on unemployment payments, and some have moved, he said.
But Joseph, reflecting the uncertainty facing the region, said he isn't sure what he'll do.
There are few job prospects close to home, but he doesn't want to move. At 58, he's too young to retire but thinks he may be too old to train for a new job, he said.
"May have to end up moving anyway," he said.
The decline of the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky has caused hardships in the broader economy.
State statistics indicate the labor force in a 23-county area of the eastern coalfield dropped by 16,272 people from November 2013 to November 2014, according to numbers provided by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
"I think it's undeniable that the loss of jobs in the coal industry affects every other sector in Eastern Kentucky's economy," said Michael Cornett, an official with the regional employment program.
Bill Bissett, head of the Kentucky Coal Association, noted that while jobs and production edged down in 2014, the drop was not as steep as in the two prior years.
There have been five quarters of relatively flat production, Bissett said — relatively good news given the challenges facing Kentucky coal.
"It's not to the level of concern that we've had previously," he said. "We're still mining a lot of coal."
Still, there are plenty of challenges on the horizon, including plans to close a number of coal-fired power plants that have bought Kentucky coal.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance, has said it plans to close two coal units at its giant Paradise plant in Muhlenberg County, which bought more than 4 million tons of Western Kentucky coal in 2013.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a continued decline in coal production this year and next in Central Appalachia — which includes Eastern Kentucky — before a slight recovery, though the numbers could vary widely within the region.
In the coal basin that includes Western Kentucky, the agency projects an increase in production.