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More Than 4,000 Coal-Industry Jobs Lost in Western States

The coal industry's downturn is having multiple effects on mining communities in the West that have depended on it for decades. (Pixabay)
The coal industry's downturn is having multiple effects on mining communities in the West that have depended on it for decades. (Pixabay)
July 13, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - The transition away from coal as the nation's primary source for electricity is affecting mining communities that have depended on the industry for more than a century.

More than 4,000 coal-related jobs have disappeared across the West since 2012, according to an investigative report by High Country News. Paige Blankenbuehler, the report's lead author, said measures such as the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which is designed to slow climate change, will just tighten the noose on the industry.

"This is a 40-year low for coal-mining production, and that's not just because of federal regulations," she said. "It's also because of the market, and natural gas is outcompeting coal."

In April, giants Arch Coal and Peabody Energy announced hundreds of layoffs at two major Wyoming coal mines. The two companies recently joined Alpha Natural Resources, which operates mines in the state's Powder River Basin, in filing for bankruptcy.

Blankenbuehler noted that most states could be doing more for out-of-work miners to help ease their transition - from subsidies, retraining programs and counseling to alternative types of economic development for coal communities. She said some companies provide severance packages, but it's hard for miners who earned on average more than $80,000 a year to find comparable jobs.

"Right now, it's like the bottom's dropping out for a lot of these families and these rural economies," she said, "and there's this cascade of effects in local schools, when their enrollment goes down from families having to leave in the face of these layoffs."

Blankenbuehler said many workers who still have jobs suffer from "survivors' guilt." She said most families focused on keeping kids in school and food on the table find concepts such as "catastrophic climate change" due to carbon pollution just too far removed from the challenges they face today.

The report is online at hcn.org.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY