Commercial coal mining in Kentucky began here, and it was once home to the most production in the nation, the largest coal-fired power plant, and the biggest machine in the world to strip away earth and uncover coal.
These days, coal jobs in Muhlenberg County have dropped to about 400 from a high of more than 3,700.
A few years ago, Kentucky Utilities closed a coal-fired power plant that had been operating in the county since 1950. and in 2017, the Tennessee Valley Authority followed suit, closing two of three coal-burning units at its sprawling Paradise electricity plant and building a natural gas-burning facility next door to replace them.
Now another key tie to coal in Muhlenberg County could pass into history.
TVA is considering closing the remaining coal unit at Paradise, which would mean that after nearly 70 years, there wouldn’t be any more coal burned in Muhlenberg County to generate electricity.
Local officials oppose closing Unit 3 at the plant because of the loss of jobs, not only at the plant but at mines and trucking companies that supply it.
“It would be devastating,” said Jon Rogers, who is on the board of the county economic development agency and works in the coal industry. “We have some of the highest unemployment right here in Western Kentucky, and we don’t need it to get any higher.”
TVA released an assessment in late November on the environmental impact of either continuing to operate Unit 3, which has 131 employees, or retiring it.
It did not sound promising to plant supporters.
The draft study said Unit 3, which went online in 1970, has deteriorated with age and has had a relatively high rate of unplanned shutdowns.
Keeping it running would require expensive mechanical and environmental upgrades, the assessment said, though it did not provide an estimated cost.
The study said the coal plant no longer fits TVA’s generation needs.
“The retirement of an inflexible unit with high maintenance and other costs could facilitate TVA’s statutory mission to provide reliable power at the lowest system cost,” the study said of Unit 3.
TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the agency does not have a preference on closing the unit or keeping it running.
Brooks said the environmental assessment is only part of the review process. Other issues, such as the impact that retiring the plant would have on the electrical grid, also will be considered, he said.
It will be February at the earliest before the TVA board makes a decision on whether to close Unit 3.
‘Prolong the war on coal’
Supporters are working to keep the unit burning.
Gary Jones, head of the Muhlenberg Alliance for Progress, sent a letter urging TVA to keep the plant in operation, citing the potential loss of jobs but also the ease of supplying the plant with coal from just a few miles away.
“It seems a little out of whack to haul coal long distances to other TVA power plants in your system and not burn coal in a plant that is located in a county that has abundant coal resources,” Jones wrote.
Supporters argue Unit 3 is valuable not just for its economic impact but as a source of dependable, affordable baseload power, and that keeping it would preserve diversity and security in electricity production at a time when hundreds of coal plants have closed in the U.S.
TVA upgraded Unit 3 to burn coal more cleanly, supporters say.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from nearby Bowling Green, also weighed in, saying that closing the plant would “prolong the war on coal” and run contrary to TVA’s mission to provide reliable, low-cost electricity.
The war on coal is a charge that rose during the Obama Administration, which pushed a number of initiatives to protect air and water quality.
The rules put coal at a disadvantage because burning it produces emissions of mercury and other pollutants, as well as far more carbon-dioxide than other energy sources. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, something climate scientists point to as a key factor in changes that have produced more intense storms and other problems.
There are a number of factors in coal-plant closings and a sharp drop in coal jobs in Kentucky and elsewhere, studies have shown, among them environmental rules and the rise of renewable energy.
In closing Units 1 and 2 at Paradise, TVA cited the need to comply with rules limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic substances, according to a 2014 lawsuit that unsuccessfully attempted to block the move.
However, researchers have cited competition from cheap natural gas for power-plant customers as a bigger factor in coal’s decline than environmental rules.
Not everyone would be sad to see Unit 3 go, illustrating its place in the debate over climate change.
The Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association told TVA they “enthusiastically” support shutting the last coal unit in Muhlenberg County.
“The boiler is an old, inefficient, unwieldy, uneconomical, and highly polluting unit. It is not needed for reliable power, it is a bad deal for ratepayers, and it harms public health and the environment,” the groups argued.
The plant emits significant amounts of pollutants such as mercury and nitrogen oxides and a “colossal” amount of carbon dioxide, the organizations said.
The Sierra Club has pushed nationwide to shut down coal plants. Since 2010, 281 have closed, according to the environmental group.
‘Big Hog’ in Paradise
If that happens in Muhlenberg County, it will be one more step away from the days when coal was king.
The first commercial coal mine in Kentucky opened near Paradise in 1820, according to Kentucky Coal Facts, a publication of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Kentucky Coal Association.
Blacksmiths were among the first customers.
With the arrival of railroads, Muhlenberg County led the state in coal production several years in the early 1900s before giving way to the rich coalfields in Eastern Kentucky, but ultimately topped the nation in production with surface mining on a massive scale.
Those were the days when Peabody Coal Co. used a behemoth shovel to strip away the ground over coal seams — a machine nicknamed “Big Hog” that reportedly stood 20 stories high and could scoop up 300 tons at a time.
Songwriter John Prine, whose father grew up in Muhlenberg County, immortalized the giant machine in his song Paradise, though it was another company that mined most extensively around the town.
Paradise became one of Prine’s signature songs but angered the coal company with lyrics about the world’s largest shovel that “tortured the timber” and stripped the land until it was forsaken.
Largely unregulated surface mining in the 1960s left the county with significant environmental damage, including scarred land, erosion and acidic runoff into waterways.
Kentucky author Wendell Berry wrote in 1972 that where the little town of Paradise once stood by the Green River, “there is now a blackened desert.”
There was later extensive reclamation work around Paradise and elsewhere in the county to repair environmental damage.
The county led the state in coal production every year from 1961 to 1978, with peak production of 26 million tons in 1972, according to state records.
The county was nicknamed the “Saudi Arabia of coal” in those days, said James L. Rogers III, whose family has been involved in the coal industry in the county for more than a century.
“It really got hot in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” he said.
Coal was the economic lifeblood of county. The coal industry accounted for 13 percent of all the jobs in the county in 1988 and 37 percent of wages, according to the first edition of Kentucky Coal Facts — an indication that the jobs paid relatively well.
As late as 2009, the coal industry still accounted for 25 percent of the total wages paid in the county, according to state data.
Coal jobs in the county have since dropped by more than half.
‘It’ll affect everything’
TVA built its power plant at Paradise to use the abundant coal and water from the Green River, opening two units in the early 1960s with what TVA said was the largest capacity in the world, then putting Unit 3 online in 1970.
The plant could supply 950,000 homes with electricity, according to the 2014 lawsuit, and employed hundreds of people at its peak.
Of 10 counties in the region, only 11 percent of the households earned as much in 2016 as the average annual salary of workers at the plant, according to the TVA assessment.
“You can’t overstate how important TVA has been to Muhlenberg County,” said Robby Davis, the county school superintendent.
Paradise, the town, didn’t do well with all the mining around town and the coal plant.
TVA bought out the last residents in the late 1960s after ash from the power plant showered the tiny town, according to one history.
The utility said in its environmental assessment that in addition to the 131 jobs that remain at Unit 3, coal mining that supplies the plant provides jobs for about 135 people.
The plant also has a contract with nearby limestone mining operations, and supports jobs at trucking companies that deliver well over 100 loads of coal every day.
The TVA assessment predicted that closing Unit 3 would cause only “minor direct adverse economic impacts,” noting that the 131 jobs at the plant amount to less than 2 percent of the total employment in the county.
But local officials say that doesn’t account for all the potential economic pain of lost jobs at coal mines and trucking companies, as well as the ripple effect on the economy.
“It’ll affect everything from the grocery stores to the car dealerships,” said Steve Jones, part-owner of a trucking company that hauls coal to the TVA plant. “Lot of guys making a living hauling coal in there now.”
The TVA coal plant is still one of the largest single employers in the county, said Gary Jones, the economic-development director.
Some families had to move out of the county to find work after TVA closed the other two coal units at the plant, and more might have to go if the last unit closes, he said.
The Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association urged TVA to consider using the power plant site to try to promote economic development if it shuts down the coal burner.
The county has been working to improve workforce skills and attract jobs in manufacturing and other fields, but lost out on one major employer that went to Tennessee instead.
The jobs at the TVA plant are needed to support the local economy as work continues to attract other jobs, said Jon Rogers.
“The timing of it is really bad now,” he said of closing the plant. “We are desperately trying to bring in new industry. We need time in this county to diversify.”