HINDMAN, Ky. — Kyle Thacker’s bloodline in the underground coal mines of eastern Kentucky goes back decades.
His grandfather Willard Thacker raised 16 children on a miner’s pay, beginning in the days when the back-breaking job involved blasting down coal and loading it into carts with a shovel.
Thacker’s father, Curby, went to work in the mines in the 1970s. He was rarely out of work during his 35 years underground.
“You could quit one day at one mine and you could get a job the next day at another one,” said Curby Thacker, 66, of Knott County, Ky.
All five of Curby’s sons followed him into the mines, but their experience has been different. All five were laid off in 2012; Kyle, 26, the youngest, lost his job last June and hasn’t been able to find work at another mine.
“I’ve looked about everywhere. You can’t pay them to let you work now,” Kyle Thacker said.
Thacker, who is married and has two young children, cashed out his 401(k) retirement account to pay off some bills. He had started remodeling his front porch but stopped when the money ran out, and he is going without health insurance because it would cost more each month than he receives in unemployment payments. He might have to let the bank take back the white 2011 Ford Taurus he bought when times were better.
Thacker and thousands of other miners are confronting the latest in a century of booms and busts in the Eastern Kentucky coal industry. This time, experts warn, the backslide looks permanent.
Driven down by competition from cheap natural gas and other factors, coal production fell 27.6 percent throughout eastern Kentucky in 2012, to the lowest level since 1965. The slide in Knott County was worse: 45 percent.
The downturn wiped out more than 4,000 mining jobs in eastern Kentucky; employment at coal mines in the state’s eastern coalfield dropped nearly 30 percent, from 13,608 in 2011 to 9,540 in 2012, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
In Knott County, 63 percent of coal jobs disappeared in 2012. The loss hurt worse than in most other places because coal had been the backbone of the local economy for decades, accounting for a larger share of local wages some years than in any other county in Kentucky.
The sharp decline is an echo of the early 1960s, when Harry Caudill, a lawyer from neighboring Letcher County, wrote his landmark book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.”
Coal production in the region was at the lowest point in decades at the time, and Caudill predicted that trend would not change. Within a few years, “tireless nuclear reactors” would replace much of coal’s share of electricity production, and coal “is unlikely ever again to be a prime industry,” he wrote.
Some of Caudill’s predictions were wrong — nuclear power didn’t become predominant, and coal had more than one comeback in the past 50 years — but his ultimate diagnosis of decay for eastern Kentucky’s omnipotent industry now looks more likely than ever.
“I think we’re going to stop mining in eastern Kentucky with coal still in the ground,” said Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
From boom to bust
Coal production reached 1.85 million tons in Knott County in 1950 but bottomed out at 722,198 tons in 1954, and it wouldn’t return to previous highs for more than a decade, according to state records.
In the eastern Kentucky mines still running, machinery robbed jobs from men. A machine called a continuous miner, which grinds coal out of the seam, became available in 1948, and a national labor agreement in 1950 encouraged wider mechanization, forcing many smaller mines out of business, Appalachian historian Ron Eller wrote in his 2008 book “Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945.”
The effect of the downturn was evident by 1960. Coal jobs in the region plummeted by more than half in the 1950s; 76 percent of Knott County residents lived in poverty, more than three times the national poverty rate.
In the 1960s, industrial expansion and electricity-sucking suburban homes kick-started coal consumption. Knott County got a new rail line just in time to benefit.
A new railroad spur arrived in 1962, according to a book of local history. National Mines opened several operations along the spur, and those mines ultimately employed more than 2,000 people, according to the history book.
Coal companies in Knott County, as in the rest of Central Appalachia, also got a boost when Middle Eastern nations decided in the early 1970s to cut the flow of oil in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel.
Coal production nationwide shot up 14.4 percent between 1973 and 1976, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and much of that coal was wrested from Central Appalachian mountains.
The boom lured Curby Thacker away from his job as a telephone lineman and into the mines, following in his father’s footsteps. Hollows around the county were pocked with portals to underground mines that honey-combed the hills, Thacker said.
On one warm day, as Thacker sat with his retired father on a roadside rock where he often whittled, three coal operators stopped by to offer Thacker a job, each promising $1 an hour more than the one before, he said, laughing as he recalled the story.
“There was jobs all over these hillsides,” Thacker said.
For much of his career, Thacker ran a machine that drove bolts into the roof of the mine to keep it from falling and crushing miners. His father thought the old way of shoring up the roof with pieces of wood was better, Thacker said.
“He said, ‘You’ll get killed, son, if you don’t set you some timbers,’” Thacker said.
Coal exports from the region more than doubled by the end of the decade, boosting jobs and small-business growth and, for a time, reversing out-migration, Eller wrote. The poverty rate in Knott County dropped by more than half in the 1970s.
“It was obvious that the economy was better; there was more money,” said Robert Morgan, who was Knott County attorney in the 1970s before becoming a judge for more than 25 years.
With the flow of Mideast oil restored by the early 1980s, the number of surface and underground mines in Eastern Kentucky dropped from more than 1,700 in 1985 to 382 in 2000, and mining jobs dropped from more than 34,500 in 1980 to fewer than 13,000 in 2000, according to state and federal sources.
In the early 2000s, Knott County saw the pendulum swing again, recording job and production gains as red-hot growth in China, a U.S. economy and other factors supported demand for coal, according to state statistics.
The relative good times didn’t last long.
The county suffered an economic blow in summer 2009, when Consol Energy closed its underground mine on Jones Fork, laying off more than 150 people. But that was only the leading edge of a tsunami that wiped out local coal jobs in 2012.
There were only 330 people employed at coal mines by the end of the year, down from more than 1,300 a decade before, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Kyle Thacker and two of his brothers were among the Knott County miners who lost jobs when Arch Coal closed several underground mines among the steep-sided mountains along Caney Fork. Two others lost their jobs at other mines.
Who to blame?
A sign in County Clerk Ken Gayheart’s office, and many others around Knott County, says “Stop the War on Coal” — an expression of the widespread local opinion that federal environmental regulations pushed by President Barack Obama are to blame for gutting production in Central Appalachia.
“That’s the way the people in our county feel — the regulations has gotten so tough,” said Gayheart, whose five employees include two who are married to miners. “We still have coal, but they’ve stopped us from mining it.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has held up permits for dozens of surface mines in the region because of concern over their potential to damage streams and water quality.
On another front, tougher federal clean-air rules — along with the potential for more — have helped to motivate utilities to close older, coal-fired power plants that produce relatively high amounts of pollution in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas plants.
Those developments dampened demand for Central Appalachian coal for production of electricity — called steam coal or thermal coal — and will continue to do so.
But the chief force behind the coal industry’s precipitous slide in Eastern Kentucky was very cheap natural gas, which enticed utilities to switch from coal to gas, analysts said.
Developments in drilling technology have unlocked vast reserves of natural gas in recent years that were once inaccessible, driving down the price. Natural gas at the benchmark distribution hub in the U.S. averaged $4.12 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2011 but only $2.83 in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
An abundant supply of cheap natural gas was “the dominant fact” fueling coal’s demise in eastern Kentucky, said Peters, the Energy and Environment Cabinet secretary.
In April 2012, the share of electricity generated using natural gas reached 32 percent, matching coal for the first time since the federal government started keeping records in 1973.
Two months later, Arch Coal cited the “continuing decline in demand for steam coal” from Central Appalachia when it announced that it was closing mines in Knott and adjoining counties and laying off more than 400 people, including Kyle Thacker.
Hoping for a turnaround
Thacker said that after high school, he thought about training to be a mechanic, but he decided instead to follow his father into the mines. That was in 2007, when there were plenty of mining jobs, and they paid far more than anything else available in the area without a college degree.
“I seen that money sign, and I didn’t look to the future,” Thacker said.
He mined for five years, running a roof-bolting machine at times like his father. He went through some periodic layoffs, but they didn’t last long, and he didn’t mind having a little extra time for hunting.
By mid-May, however, he was sick of the “vacation” that had lasted nearly a year.
Thacker, often dressed in his blue miner’s pants with reflective tape, has searched for mining jobs across the region. He received one offer at a mine in northern West Virginia, but he didn’t want to work that far from home.
An official at a coal company two counties away took his application in early May and wished him good luck, but nothing more. Not long after, Thacker thought he had a job lined up at a small mine, but then federal regulators shut it down after a surprise safety inspection.
Discouraged, and with the end of his unemployment looming, Thacker signed up in May for public assistance with his mortgage and began searching for jobs outside the mining industry.
“I’m open to anything that pays decent, that I can pay the bills on,” he said.
Thacker still thinks the coal industry in eastern Kentucky will eventually rebound, but he doubts there will be a mining job waiting in Knott County when his 2-year-old son, Taylon, joins the workforce. Even if there is, Thacker said, he’ll try to talk his son out of relying on coal for his livelihood.
“Find something that’s steady,” he’ll tell him.