Coal’s Decline Is Choking Appalachia Towns

10-Sep-2015

In Kentucky’s Letcher County, emergency response time for sheriff’s deputies averages an hour, up from 30 minutes a year ago. Martin County, also in eastern Kentucky, couldn’t afford to open its public swimming pool this summer. West Virginia’s Boone County, once the richest in the state, is considering ending free garbage pickup. The cutbacks stem from a steep drop in coal production as tougher environmental regulations and low natural gas prices make coal less competitive. “It’s just been devastating to us,” says Kelly Callaham, judge-executive of Martin County, which has a $7 million budget, down $1.5 million from three years ago. “You take a million and a half out of a budget that size, it’s a disaster.”

The Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state economic development organization, classifies 93 of 420 counties as distressed. Many of them are in central Appalachia, which straddles Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The region has been mined for two centuries, and the cheapest and best coal has been dug up. The remaining seams are lower quality and more expensive to mine. Many utilities have replaced Appalachian coal with cheaper fuel from Illinois and the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana, or switched to burning natural gas. Coal’s share of electricity generation in the U.S. will fall to 35 percent this year, from 50 percent a decade ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal production is expected to fall to less than 914 million tons, the lowest in 29 years. The number of active pits in the U.S. has plunged 39 percent from the end of 2005 through June 2015. (by Margaret Newkirk and Tim Loh and Mario Parker, Bloomberg Business)