Coal Country at the Crossroads
When Nic Zmija applied for a job at the 4 West coal mine three years ago, he was tantalized by a fat raise and a secure future. Once hired, he was told that someday even his two young sons had jobs waiting for them.
“It all sounded good,” Zmija recalled with a tight smile while sitting at his kitchen table the other day. “They said my kids would be able to retire here.”
But right after New Year’s, management announced that the mine would have to close, leaving 370 people scrambling to find new jobs. The Zmija family must now prepare to move in search of the next coal job.
The fateful turn of events in Appalachian mining towns like Bobtown, isolated between craggy bluffs and wooded hills 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, illustrates the seemingly relentless downturn of the coal industry. While President Donald Trump has offered some regulatory relief to the industry, market forces still dictate a gloomy future — one largely shaped by the glut of cheap natural gas yielded by the drilling boom in shale fields near here and across much of the nation.
As aging coal-fired power plants are shut — roughly 20 of 380 have closed or are in the process of shutting since Trump took office — coal’s share of the nation’s power mix has plummeted from nearly half in 2008 to roughly a third today.
Last year, coal consumption in the United States fell by 2.4 percent, falling to its lowest level in nearly four decades. In the early weeks of 2018, national coal production has continued to decline from a year ago despite the frigid winter. A weather-related increase in exports last year yielded a modest gain in jobs, but it is not considered sustainable.
The decline in demand has forced a 38 percent drop in the nation’s coal production in a little less than a decade. Now only the most efficient mines containing the highest-quality coal are able to survive.
The 4 West mine, like many that produce coal for power utilities in Appalachia, is expensive to run. Its coal seam is thin and of lower quality than those of competing mines, and its traditional form of mining requires costly methods to stabilize roofs to protect against the kind of accidents that caused the deaths of two miners at 4 West over the past three years. Government fines and management turmoil also took their toll.
文／Clifford Krauss 譯／王麗娟