Corey Meadows has been working as a coal miner for eight years. In coalfield counties like Logan, Wyoming and McDowell Workforce data shows coal is still king, remaining one of the top employers and providing some of the highest paying jobs. The coal mining industry supplied close to 21,000 jobs in West Virginia in the 4th quarter of 2013. Those jobs generated about half a billion dollars in earned wages to miners with an average weekly wage of about $1,700; some of the highest paying jobs in the state.
A Coal Miner's American Dream
Corey Meadows works as a section boss in a McDowell County mine. The pay is good enough to drive about an hour from his home in Mercer County. It's coal mining that provides for this West Virginia family.
"From the gas you put in your truck to your house payments to my daughters going to college, I mean everything," Meadows says.
The Environmental Protection Agency released long anticipated regulations to limit carbon emissions earlier this week. Since the largest carbon emitter in the U.S. is coal fired power plants, the industry is anticipating a sharp decline in demand for thermal coal after rules are implemented.
Meadows works in a metallurgical coal mine. Met coal is usually used to make steel while thermal coal is burned to generate electricity. Still, the EPA is predicting that Appalachian coal production could decline by 30% under the new rule.
"I’m a young man and I expect to get another 25 to 30 years out of this job," Meadows said. "Hopefully hope to God it goes through and I can retire and my kids go to college and they go off and get married and I’m a retired coal miner."
Thousands of West Virginia coal miners have already lost their jobs. The US Department of Labor awarded the Coal Mining National Emergency Grant to West Virginia. The retraining program is for miners and their spouses that have lost employment since March 2012. So far only 369 miners have used the available funds for training in areas such as welding … and only 137 have completed their selected training program and found employment.
More than Miners Could Lose
"That’s good that they’re doing that but most of the time when you’re welding something you’re welding a ripper jack for a miner," Meadows said. "That all goes back to coal. Those guys that are welding they’re welding for us. They’re running those legs in the machine shop for us and if we don’t’ do our part then we don’t need them."
Debbie Johnson works as the Black Lung Clinic Coordinator at Bluestone Health Center in Mercer County.
Johnson suspects not every miner is eager to just find another occupation.
"What they don’t realize is these coal miners is just that, they’re coal miners," Johnson said. "That’s what they’ve been all their life."
Jobs are limited in southern West Virginia. Still, former miners have taken training and found employment as CDL Certified Truck Drivers, CNAs, Heavy Equipment Operators, Maintenance personnel, and Electrical Technicians.
Johnson too points out that it’s not just the miner who could lose if the coal mines continue to close in the region.
"This don’t affect just the coal miners and just the mining industry this affects every industry in West Virginia," she said. "The little mom and pop shops. I don’t know how many little mom and pop shops we’ve had to shut down because there’s no coal miners to keep them running any more."
Other Occupational Options?
Kent Sullivan is a retired coal miner who lives in neighboring Raleigh County. He too is worried about the effects the new federal regulations will have on his town.
"Here in the southern region where we’ve relied on coal for so many years as being the top dog," Sullivan said, "no plans were actually made to bring in other industries to actually offset as the coal market and coal industry went down and now we’re finding ourselves that people are without jobs."
It might be “an inconvenient truth” to some in this country but it’s a hard reality for folks in the coalfields. And as coal jobs continue to decline, the most likely result is a continued population decline as many feel there’s no other option than to move on.
The emission reduction proposal gives states across the country two years to come up with their own plan to lower carbon emissions by 2030.
Corey Meadows hopes to hold onto to his job to support his wife and two young girls.
"I hope they just kind of look back and step back from the situation and really see what they’re really going to affect," he said. "This is a lot of people, a lot of livelihoods that they’re messing with and that’s just not a good thing man, it’s really bad."
Meadows says he would likely move out of the area if he loses his job.