Coal production and jobs in Eastern Kentucky continued to fall in the final three months of 2013, leaving regional employment in the industry at an historic low.
Coal mines and preparation plants in the state's beleaguered eastern coalfield laid off 2,232 employees in 2013, leaving an average of only 7,332 people with jobs from October through December, according to a report released Tuesday by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
As recently as the summer of 2011, a quarterly average of 14,285 people worked in the coal industry in Eastern Kentucky. Jobs began to edge down after that, however, and then plummeted beginning in mid-2012, according to state figures.
Frank Dixon, of Lynch, is one of the thousands of miners who lost their jobs. He has looked unsuccessfully for another coal job since being laid off as a mechanic at a mine in December 2012. "There is nothing here — literally nothing," said Dixon, 51. "I've never seen it this way."
Dixon said his last unemployment extension ran out in December. The father of two said recently that he has no income, but he hopes he can line up odd jobs such as cutting grass for members of the Baptist church he attends.
He doesn't want to leave the area. It's home, and his 77-year-old mother lives nearby, where he can check on her daily.
Dixon said he had paid off his house and vehicles before he was laid off, but many other miners weren't able to do that.
"I have seen a lot of people really, really struggle bad," he said.
The job and production numbers released Tuesday tell very different stories about the state's two distinct coalfields.
Western Kentucky's coal industry finished 2013 only 94 jobs under where it started, a decline of just 2.1 percent compared to the annual decline of 23.4 percent in Eastern Kentucky.
Statewide, there are fewer people employed in coal mining than at any point since the state started tracking the number in 1927. Nearly all the losses have been in Eastern Kentucky.
An estimated 11,781 people had jobs in the coal industry statewide as of December, according to the state report.
On the production side, total tonnage statewide was 80.7 million tons in 2013. That was down 11.6 percent from 2012, according to the state report.
Production fell 19.2 percent in Eastern Kentucky, compared to 2.8 percent in the western coalfield.
Underground production increased by 2.8 percent in Western Kentucky for the year, but surface mining fell by more than 23 percent.
Union County, in Western Kentucky, cemented its spot as the state's largest coal producer in 2013, at more than 13.2 million tons.
Eastern Kentucky's Pike County, for decades the state's largest producer, finished 2013 in the No. 2 spot, with 10.8 million tons.
Coal production statewide in 2013 was down more than a third from the 2008 level of 121 million tons.
Many people in Eastern Kentucky believe tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality are to blame for the sharp downturn in coal production and jobs, but analysts say the picture is more complex.
Environmental policies have played a role in the decline, but so have competition from low-priced natural gas and coal from other parts of the country, the depletion of coal reserves in Eastern Kentucky, and higher mining costs in the region.
Federal analysts have predicted coal production in the region that includes Eastern Kentucky will not return to the 2008 level in a projection window that extends to 2040.
The installation of pollution-control equipment since the 1970s created renewed opportunities in recent years for utilities to use higher-sulfur coal from Western Kentucky at power plants.
Federal analysts predict coal production will increase in the region that includes Western Kentucky.
As recently as the first quarter of 2007, Eastern Kentucky produced 22.3 million tons of coal, compared to 7.5 million in Western Kentucky.
By the fourth quarter of 2013, Western Kentucky produced 9.9 million tons, compared to 9.1 million tons for Eastern Kentucky, according to the state report.