This is part one of a two part report on the challenges faced by coal communities in southern West Virginia
MADISON,W.Va. – Peering into massive semi-truck engines,ducking beneath wheel wells and examining tail lights,students at Boone County Truck Driving School slowly worked through their first pre-trip inspection,huddling together in small groups against the chilly mountain air.
“Seat OK? Seatbelt OK? Window OK? Mirror,mirror mounts OK? Highway horn,city horn? Am I going too fast for you?” Dale Ball,72,asked his four students – a mix of laid-off and working coal miners from around southern West Virginia – as they buzzed through a pre-trip checklist.
Carefully guided by veteran instructors,the new drivers slowly began to start their vehicles,and the sounds of roaring diesel engines filled the small parking lot tucked between wooded slopes.
Soon the trucks were groaning forward,gears scraping,as the students circled their classroom building,shifting from first through fourth and then starting over again. The first day of driving was underway,and they were one step closer to getting commercial driver’s licenses and a shot at a new career.
After watching his classmates take the wheel,Levi Holstein,22,jumped into the driver’s seat for the first time.
“I’m new,I’m new. I don’t know what I’m doing!” he said with a laugh to Ball and his fellow students after grinding a gear and jolting the truck.
Holstein’s youth was spent hunting deer,turkey and bears,fishing for catfish with his father and riding four wheelers through the hills of Boone County. Now,the mountains he grew to love have been leveled in pursuit of coal,and their debris scraped into the hollow above his childhood home,destroying old haunts.
“I would be the first to tell you I hate strip mines. I hate it,I don’t like it one bit,” Holstein said. “But at the same time it gives a man a job.”
For Holstein,and many others throughout the region,the changes to the landscape and negative environmental impacts are weighed against paychecks to support their families. However,in the past few years career miners have seen their jobs vanish or move to other parts of the state.
Once the most formidable industry in West Virginia,coal is progressively losing its economic dominance throughout Central Appalachia as production slows due to tightening pollution controls,greater availability of cheap natural gas and growing competition from other coal basins.
From 2007 to 2012 West Virginia’s annual coal production dropped by 31.7 million tons annually,falling over 20 percent,from 165.7 million to 129.5 million. Over half of that decline,17.9 million tons,came from Boone County,which until 2012 had long been the state’s top producer.
Since then,the decline has continued in Boone County,bringing with it mass job losses resulting in the layoff of 1,036 coal workers – like Holstein – in the county of 24,000 in 2012 and 2013,according to information released as part of West Virginia’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.
After graduating from high school,Holstein saw two paths for himself: Get lucky enough to attend college or follow his father’s footsteps into the underground coal mines.
Luck didn’t intervene,and his parents couldn’t afford school on his father’s $1,200 a-month salary,after he left the mines to work in a battery factory to support the family of five.
At 18,Holstein began working third-shift move crew in an underground coal mine pushing through 10- and 11- hour night shifts for Massey Energy,now part of Alpha Natural Resources the county’s top employer,bolting roofs to support the mine’s ceilings and prepping machinery for the next day’s production.
“Your first couple nights in there you can’t breathe real good,” Holstein said,describing the mines full of darkness,mud and noise. “It’s just like going into another world.”
Holstein anticipated long hours and injuries. However,being laid off less than a year after buying a home for his family,and three months after the birth of his daughter,caught him off guard.
For Holstein,who built his life in Boone County around his parents,siblings,fiancé,Lindsey Jarvis; their 4-year-old son,Chase,and 8-month-old daughter,Kaegan,going out of state for work is a last resort.
“If I have to,I’ll go back in the mines,no ifs ands or buts,but I figured I’d try something different,” he said,later describing that he didn’t want to be “30 years old and broken down.”
So far,the unpredictability and loss of income has been softened after Jarvis returned to work as a nurse. As hefty bills for their home and truck kept coming in and Holstein’s debt grew,he said that without her “I probably would have lost everything.”
“I’ve seen people literally at rock bottom because of losing their jobs in the mines and they can’t find another one. But you just pretty much pick your head up and keep on trucking,” Holstein said.
However,his effort to complete the CDL class was cut short a few weeks after grinding his first gear when Earl Holstein,his 49-year-old father,fell ill and doctors informed his family it would be a miracle if he survived for 24 hours.
“The day that they told us my daddy was going to die we had over 80 people in that waiting room for him,” he said.
Two weeks later,with his father still grievously ill in the hospital,a contract position at a pay cut opened with a coal company near Charleston,W.Va. Unable to justify forgoing the promise of a paycheck to help support his family during the time of crisis,he went back underground.
The CDL classes have trained 150 out-of-work miners since the U. S. Department of Labor funded a $1.8 million National Emergency Grant in 2012. The programs are managed by WorkForce West Virginia and provide job training to those affected by West Virginia’s industry-wide layoffs. About half of the 607 eligible people in the state have trained in a variety of skills,with truck driving the most popular by far.
In the past,miners weren’t as pressed to retrain for new careers after being laid off,as they were easily able to find work at another mine. Now that has become a difficult task as the number of permanent mine closures grows.
Although tax revenues and mining jobs in Central Appalachia may remain stable or even increase on average,these benefits will be spread unevenly throughout the region,helping some counties,hurting many others and putting long-term regional stability at risk. This volatility makes planning difficult for communities and individual workers who have seen the coal industry move away.
Leaving the CDL class early each day to pick up his daughter from school and then go to his night-shift job,Cameo Wilson,34,winds his way along mining roads shaved from steep West Virginian peaks,bouncing around in a 200-ton coal truck that he likens to driving a two-story house.
In 2005 Wilson moved to West Virginia from his home in Marion,S.C.,to find work in West Virginia,ultimately making his way to Boone County where he met his wife,Kelly Wilson,and began running heavy equipment at a surface mine.
“In this area,really there’s not much to do besides coal mining,” he said.
Even though Wilson has been able to avoid being laid off,seeing his “coal mining brothers” lose their jobs has shaken his confidence that a career in mining will last as long as he hoped,motivating him to seek alternatives.
“A lot of people are angry because they feel that the politicians don’t really care about them,” he said,describing the frustration felt by some who see their livelihood as under attack.
Working from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.,Monday through Friday,for the past three years has taken its toll on Wilson. Combined with the five-week driving class,it has meant three hours of sleep per night.
“My health before I started mining was good,” he said. Now that’s changed.
After he began working at the surface mine,Wilson developed sleep apnea. But the condition,which his doctor suggested was caused by the strenuous conditions at the mine,has also offered an escape from it,allowing Wilson access to a disability grant that he’s using to pay for the driving class.
His dream is to start his own trucking company where he imagines a change of pace,better hours and possibly a way to “get off that machine.”
Wilson still believes that the coal industry,even though it’s in a downtown,will make a comeback in the region,because “rain sleet or snow,the coal must go.”
The anxious father
“I think the good Lord put coal on this earth for a reason,” he said,“It’s got to be mined.”
Linville learned to support the coal industry at an early age,quickly grasping how integral mining jobs were to the success of families and businesses.
Four years ago,he was laid off from his job of 20 years at a Caterpillar heavy equipment dealership that was supported by the coal industry’s business. For every five mining jobs there’s one person working in a job that supports the industry,according to a 2010 WorkForce West Virginia report.
Although his time being unemployed was stressful,Linville was able to find work four months later managing maintenance scheduling at a surface mine in Boone County.
“I’m not saying that the coal-mining industry is the best job in the world,but that’s what’s been in this local economy,” he said. “Honestly,I looked hard to find employment outside the coal industry,and there is nothing out there that pays anywhere close.”
One of his sons,Joey Linville,31,has been employed off and on as a heavy equipment operator for coal companies,often struggling to find work following mine closures and layoffs.
Linville’s wife,Michele Linville,44,works as an accounts manager at a dentist’s office where business has dropped in the past few years as more money leaves the area.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I don’t know what tomorrow holds,” Linville said. “What do you tell your kids and your grandkids? Go to school and get the heck out of dodge?”
The economic planner
As a child,Larry Lodato,68,was lulled to sleep by the sound of coal trains passing outside his bedroom window. In mid-March,he retired from his role as executive director at the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation.
Mining has always been a big part of Lodato’s life. His grandparents emigrated from Hungary and settled in Logan County,W.Va.,adjacent to Boone County,in 1908 after seeing a newspaper ad for mining jobs.
Large-scale coal production started ramping up in West Virginia during the late 1800s,and coal industry jobs grew steadily for the next 100 years. In 1948,on the brink of its first major collapse,approximately 125,000 people were employed as miners in the state. Seven years later 70,000 people had lost their jobs as mechanization began to improve labor efficiency and diminish the need for skilled workers.
Before production began its rapid descent a few years ago,Lodato never imagined a day coal wouldn’t be able to support the community.
“When we had our first major layoff,it was such a shock. Here’s 500 guys losing their jobs,and why?” he said. “It’s a big challenge for the local economy here in Madison. A few businesses have shut down,but we’re still here and hopefully we’ll be here this time next year.”
“It’s hard to fathom that they would try to shut down an industry which built America,” Lodato said. “They would rather save a mosquito or an insect than rescue a family that’s in need.”
He said most of the blame rests with President Barack Obama,the federal government and the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to control pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The new air quality controls are intended to improve public health and protect the environment. The EPA estimates that up to 11,000 premature deaths and a myriad of other health problems will be prevented by decreasing air pollution. Lakes,rivers and streams should be cleaner.
Outside of these stated goals,the regulations have a range of short- and long-term economic impacts for people living in communities supported by coal production.
In 1987,the state passed the West Virginia Severance Tax Act,which instituted a 5 percent tax on the sale price of coal – the vast majority of which goes to the state’s general fund,with a smaller portion distributed among the counties. In 2013,West Virginia collected $409.6 million in severance taxes,mostly generated by the coal industry,a $58.2 million decline from the previous year. Coal-producing counties received $32.3 million,and $5.2 million went to oil and gas producing counties. This revenue for the state has been gradually declining since 2011,but Boone County has taken a drastically larger hit.
With bountiful shale gas wells bringing millions of dollars a year to counties in the northern part of the state,Boone County’s coal severance tax revenue has been halved in less than a decade.
The regional jail,community centers,solid waste department and county festivals are all fully funded by the severance tax. Other programs,including mental-health care,food assistance for senior citizens,emergency services,community and economic development,water and sewer projects and the health department,also receive funding from the tax on coal production.
Lodato said none of the programs are set to be cut. He’s not sure it will stay that way after the county announces its new budget in June.
Boone County commissioner Mickey Brown said the severance taxes are “icing on the cake” for the general budget,which has been cut by $7 million to $20 million in the past two years in part because of falling property taxes. Brown said the assessed value of property in the county has dropped $149 million in the past year – causing a loss of $900,000 in revenue for the school system alone – as mine closures have resulted in expensive equipment being removed and valuable land losing worth.
Continue to part two: As coal goes,dependent communities look for a fix
Reach reporter Griffin Moores at Griffin.Moores@shns.com or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.