LEXINGTON, Ky. – The production of and demand for Kentucky coal continues to fade, and the ongoing and slow collapse of the coal industry has far-reaching economic and financial implications for many communities across the Commonwealth. 

What You Need To Know

  • Coal-producing counties tend to vote Republican

  • Mining and other coal jobs at an all-time low

  • Industry has been basis of attack ads in U.S. Senate race

  • Experts say natural gas, mechanization have caused decrease in production, which is the lowest it has ever been

As the industry fights to survive, candidates for public office in Kentucky are using the plight of coal and its current and retired miners to attract voters, proving once again those hard, black rocks are political gold in Kentucky.

Coal has long been a focal point of many elections in Kentucky, from the local level to the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, and interest groups supporting those candidates have flooded Kentuckians’ mailboxes, social media pages, televisions, and radios with coal-related advertisements about miners’ pensions, black lung lawsuits, and overall support for the coal industry and its employees.

The Kentucky Coal Association (KCA) was formed in 1942 with the goal of providing effective leadership for the coal industry and ultimately to enhance the ability of the Kentucky coal industry to compete in domestic and world coal markets. KCA’s mission statement says the group takes a “proactive approach in dealing with elected officials, state agencies, the media, and the general public” to represent its member companies in innovative ways designed to educate the citizens of Kentucky about energy resources in general and coal in particular.

“Coal touches every Kentuckian,” according to the KCA’s mission statement on kentuckycoal.com. “Coal powers the state literally and figuratively. Coal provides over 80 percent of the state’s electrical power and mining one of the state’s major industrial employers. The Kentucky Coal Association carries this message in a multifaceted program supported by coal producers, suppliers, transporters, utilities, financial institutions, consulting firms, and individuals.”

The McConnell Senate Committee launched a website called wrongpathmcgrath.com that attacks the candidate for her stance on coal as well as abortion, immigration, abortion and the COVID-19 pandemic. The website features a video of retired Kentucky coal miners Albrow Hall Jr. and Randy Robbins, who are both seeking black lung benefits, criticizing McGrath for using them in ad to attack McConnell. Hall and Robbins say in the ad they support McConnell and were deceived by McGrath, thinking they were appearing in a commercial about black lung but instead appearing in a campaign ad.

Robbins said McGrath’s ad is “a lie” and that is why he and Hall were removed from it. Hall said the truth is, the miners visited with McConnel and were told they would be taken care of. 

“Mitch helped miners with black lung and help protect our pensions, too,” Robbins says in the ad.   

McGrath’s ad asks McConnell, “Which side are you on?”

“Our coal miners risked their lives to fuel our country,” McGrath said. “Mitch McConnell would only give a group of them with black lung disease a scant minute when they rode 10 hours to visit him in Washington.”

The ad features Jimmy Moore, of Pike County, who said his grandfather and stepfather died from black lung. 

“Now, I could lose my son,” Moore said. “Mitch McConnell let the coal companies walk away from us, and after one minute, he did, too.”

McGrath, a former fighter pilot, said we owe our coal miners.

“I learned in the Marines to leave no one behind,” she said. “But after 34 years in Washington, Mitch McConnell left our coal miners behind years ago. I’m on the side of miners and their families, and I’ll never walk away.”

Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust, which leads to inflammation, scarring, shortness of breath, and respiratory failure. The complications can include chronic bronchitis; obstructive pulmonary disease, which keeps air out of the lungs; and lung cancer. It can take many years for the disease to develop, and there is no cure.

The Federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund provides more than 25,000 miners or their dependents with cash assistance and medical benefits. The maximum cash assistance payments ranged from about $660 to $1,320 per month in 2018, depending on the beneficiary's number of dependents.

For more than 40 years, the disability fund was supported by coal-severance tax revenue – levied on the sale price of every ton of coal mined in Kentucky. Coal industry lobbyists were successful in their quest to get the tax reduced by 55 percent, which took effect this past Jan. 1. The General Accounting Office reported in June that taxpayer obligations to the disability fund, already $4 billion in debt, could swell to $15 billion by 2050 without further action by Congress to restore funding and cut red tape so miners could obtain benefits more easily.

Because of the reduced tax, the disability fund could begin to run out of money as early as next year.

Kentucky is fourth in the nation in coal production behind Wyoming, West Virginia, and Illinois. There were 6,612 people employed by the coal industry in Kentucky in 2016, but only 3,449 in 2019, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. Twenty-five of Kentucky’s 120 counties produce coal – eight in Western Kentucky and the rest in Eastern Kentucky. The top-three coal-producing counties – Union, Ohio, and Hopkins – are in Western Kentucky. Pike remains the largest coal-producing county in Eastern Kentucky, followed by Perry, Harlan, and Bell. Historically, 56 of the 120 counties in Kentucky have recorded direct coal employment. In the past five years, 36 counties recorded direct coal employment.

Out of fear that Democrats will impose environmental restrictions that will hurt the industry, Kentucky’s coal-producing counties are usually deeply Republican at the polls. President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by an average margin of 4-to-1 in Eastern Kentucky with his pro-coal stance and promises to relax regulations and bring back jobs. A report from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet shows that has not happened, with coal jobs actually falling to 2,256 from April 1 to June 30 of this year. Nonetheless, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports Trump is still likely to win Eastern Kentucky big this coming November, since many of the reasons coal production has faltered and jobs have not come back are related to competition from natural gas, mechanization, and the continued closing of coal-fired power plants.   

Kentucky State Rep. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, represents District 29, which includes parts of the coal-producing counties of Floyd, Harlan, Knott, and Letcher. He said the decline of the coal industry is not a political issue.

“The demand is way down,” he said. “The power plants are converting to natural gas and there are only a couple that still uses coal. The coal we are mining is metallurgical and not steam coal, so we aren’t shipping it overseas.”

Turner added his district, which once had more than 100 operating mines, now has around 25 and they are small operations.

“All the big companies have left,” he said. “We need to focus on retraining our miners to do something else so they can get back to work.”

Coal has been one of McConnell’s strengths during his time in the Senate. President Tyler White wrote an opinion article in August of 2019 supporting McConnell, saying he has defended coal communities in Kentucky. 

“When President Obama declared war on coal, Sen. McConnell stood strong defending our communities,” White wrote. “He used every mechanism possible to prevent harmful regulations from putting coal miners out of work. To fight unprecedented – and probably unconstitutional – federal overreach by the Obama administration, our senator mobilized the nation’s governors and joined the fight against its anti-coal policies in court.”

White said attacks on McConnell by liberal groups claiming the majority leader has not helped coal communities “couldn’t be further from the truth” and called the assertions “inaccurate” and “insincere.”

Members of this liberal group protest coal plants, organize against coal jobs and celebrate when plants close and miners are put out of work,” White said. “They advocate for a future without coal, which for generations has been the lifeblood of many communities throughout Kentucky. The policies they advocate directly contribute to fewer coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky. It’s utterly hypocritical to say you support miners while actively working to take away their paychecks.”

White said the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 brought a “friend of coal” to the White House and mentioned a letter McConnell sent to Trump before his inauguration identifying several important ways they could work together to “repair the damage Obama left behind.” 

“Almost immediately, the Trump administration and the Republican senate did just that,” White said. “Sen. McConnell introduced and shepherded to enactment the repeal of the Stream Buffer Rule, which threatened to put up to one-third of coal miners out of work. President Trump announced the end of the so-called ‘Clean Power Plan,’ which sought to close nearly every American coal plant and send your energy bills skyrocketing. Recently, the Trump administration proposed a new, coal-friendly plan to produce American energy while also protecting the environment – goals the president understands don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

White said federal regulations implemented during the Obama administration did “lasting damage on Kentucky” by causing thousands of coal miners to lose their jobs, threatened their pensions and retirements, and drained communities’ resources. 

“The region has made strides along the path to recovery, and Sen. McConnell has delivered federal resources to help revitalize Appalachian communities through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Economic Development Pilot Program

“Sen. McConnell and Congressman Hal Rogers are securing tens of millions of dollars to support economic growth in Eastern Kentucky,” White said. “These resources are helping create jobs, fight the opioid and substance abuse epidemic, and provide employment training for former coal miners to develop new skills for new careers, helping deliver nearly $30 million in competitive federal grants for the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program to serve dislocated coal miners and workers throughout the region. When regulations threatened access to federal student aid programs at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, Sen. McConnell secured a provision to protect students’ ability to pursue higher education in this region. Anyone who attacks Sen. McConnell’s accomplishments for families and coal communities isn’t paying attention. The vast majority of Kentuckians are grateful to Sen. McConnell for his steadfast commitment to helping families get back on their feet after the war on coal.”

The Kentucky State Senate seat in District 31 is contested this election, with Democrat Glenn Martin Hammond, a Pikeville attorney, challenging incumbent Republican Phillip Wheeler, who is also a Pikeville attorney. District 31 includes parts of Lawrence, Martin, Elliott, Morgan, and Pike counties, all coal-producing, with Pike producing the most in Eastern Kentucky.

“As a state senator, I’ve fought for our coal industry and our miners,” Wheeler said. “If the mines aren’t open, the miners can’t work and support their families. That’s why I cosponsored bipartisan legislation along with Sen. Johnny Ray Turner that offers breathing room for our ailing coal industry while giving state protection to our miners' paychecks. I also filed a bill to undo many of the harmful changes made to Kentucky’s Black Lung/Workers Compensation Act in 2018. I’ve spent my entire professional career as an attorney representing coal miners who deserve black lung benefits. As long as I’m state senator, I’ll be a champion for coal and coal miners.”

Hammond said coal has been a way of life in Eastern Kentucky for more than 200 years and continues to be of the utmost importance.

“Coal has fed, clothed, and put a roof over the head of tens of thousands of families, kept our heat, air, and lights on, and allowed as many kids to get an education,” Hammond said. “It has built the golden triangle while we have gotten little back in return to build up our region. Coal has been part of our heritage and our culture. We have lost many brothers and sisters, moms and dads, aunts, uncles, and cousins to black lung and tragic events over those centuries. Coal will always be a symbol for Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky’s proud history and pride. It still has a place and a need in our economy and must be protected and promoted.”