WASHINGTON, D.C. — At 75-years-old, former coal miner Jimmy Moore has fond memories of his nearly two decades working at Bethlehem Steel in Pike County, Kentucky.
"I’ve done plenty. I’ve done just about everything in the mines that can be done. There were about 10-11 men there in that same section with you and you take care of each other just like brothers would," Moore said.
The bonds he formed were everlasting but his time in the mines also left him with black lung disease. His 52-year old son, also a former miner, is similarly struggling with the long-term exposure to coal dust.
What You Need To Know
- In January, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to find ways to increase economic activity in coal communities
- Former coal miners say the pledge to revitalize coal towns in Kentucky is encouraging
- One Kentuckian believes the region could be well suited for wind and solar energy, but more prep work needs to be done
- Many are also putting pressure on federal officials to maintain the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund
People in communities like Moore's are facing health challenges, opiate addiction, and the economic fallout of coal companies filing for bankruptcy.
Moore said an early pledge from the Biden administration to revitalize towns like Shelby Gap is encouraging.
"I’m hoping he’ll bring some business in here some way or another that will revive us," said Moore.
In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to find ways to increase economic activity in coal, oil and gas communities. The Department of Interior has also pledged nearly $10 million for Kentucky to support the work of reclaiming abandoned mine lands.
"I’m seeing the reclamation sites as an opportunity, an opportunity to put people to work in Eastern Kentucky. It’s been a terrible situation on employment. I was frustrated and angry with the war on coal. If the government is going to come in and decimate an entire economic pillar of an area, I think they have an obligation to come in and replace those jobs in other industries and unfortunately that did not occur in Eastern Kentucky or West Virginia," said Dan Caudill, the owner of Caudill Seed Company, a group that is involed with reclamation projects.
He says the Biden administration is taking a step in the right direction, but believes the coal industry has been unfairly targeted for years.
"It’s a drop in the bucket and I don’t know exactly how it’s going to be distributed and how it’s going to get out there but when you take a multi-billion dollar industry in a region of the United States that has no other major industries in it and you basically shut that industry down, you need to replace it with something closer in size to that," he said.
Caudill believes the region could be well suited for wind and solar energy but said before new industry can develop, more mines must properly be reclaimed.
"It affects everyone in the community and it also affects everyone's mental stability. We have such a large drug problem in this area. People can’t find jobs. They turn to drugs," said Laresa Toole, an Eastern Kentucky resident who works for Caudill, on the economic decline of the region.
"There is not one solution or one approach that is going to solve all of the issues we are facing," said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy & Organizing at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, a group that assists former miners like Moore.
Shelton said top of mind for her is putting pressure on federal officials to maintain the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
"The tax that funds the fund is set to get cut in half by the end of the year," she said.
Moore is confident Biden will make good on his promises but isn't sure what comes next if the efforts fall flat.
"If he don’t do that, we’ll be in the wilderness for a long time," Moore said.