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Depressed energy prices, increased competition from natural gas, and the prospect of new EPA regulations have cost more than 30,000 American coal workers their jobs since 2011. Could the predominantly white, working-class voters in places like Greene County, Pennsylvania, one of the top coal-producing counties in the country, swing the state in favor of Republicans in November? Special NewsHour Weekend correspondent Chris Bury reports.
Dave Whipkey, now 64 and retired, spent much of his life working at a Pennsylvania coal mine. It was difficult, dangerous work, but in 38 years at the mine, Whipkey was able to provide well for his family. With overtime, he was earning close to 75-thousand dollars a year when he retired in 2014.
When you're first hired in the mine, you go underground, and it's different, it's neat. After you're there a month, you look around and you think, 'What am I doing here?' If you can get past that phase of it, then you're okay.
the Emerald Mine, where Whipkey worked, lies in nearby Waynesburg, a coal town tucked in the Appalachian mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Last year Emerald's owner, Alpha Natural Resources, filed for bankruptcy and then shut down the mine, one of five mines in the area to close recently. To make matters worse, Whipkey and his wife just found out their health insurance will expire next year.
We were promised health care from cradle to grave. And now you have to wonder, 'How much longer am I going to have medical and what happens after that?' And it's a worry, it really is.
He's worried the pension the company promised him could be in jeopardy, too.
All the years that you work to build your pension. And then they're going to cut it. It's not fair.
In places like Greene County, one of the nation's biggest coal producers, the economic damage has been profound and painful. When the Emerald Mine closed last November, more than 230 union mineworkers lost good paying jobs with generous benefits. And the impact is cascading around the region. In just the last 5 years, more than 30,000 mine workers nationwide have seen their jobs disappear.
Back in the early days, coal mining was just everywhere…
Miners like 41-year-old Brian Schaum lost their jobs at emerald mine as U.S. coal production was falling to its lowest level in 35 years. He grew up in Greene County — a coal miner like his father, uncle, and brother. When he lost his job, he lost a nearly six figure income.
When they laid off up there, I was at like 29 an hour. The overtime was just as much as I wanted. I mean I could write my own check.
Now he's getting by doing odd jobs and remodeling homes.
Does it pay anything like what you were used to in the mine?
No, but it helps put a little bit of food on the table. So I mean, it's a real adjustment right now.
The adjustment comes at a time when the industry is fighting proposed regulations by the Obama Administration. The president has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to implement a "clean power plan" to reduce earth-warming carbon gas emissions from coal fired power plants.
Over the last six years, electricity produced by coal has fallen from 45% to 31% of the nation's power generation.
The coal companies blamed this totally and completely on Obama and the EPA.
Ed Yankovich, who heads the regional district of the United Mine Workers of America Union says stricter EPA rules have played a role in coal's decline, but believes that market forces, including cheap natural gas and a drop in coal demand from china, are also a factor. Yankovich says coal companies scapegoat the president.
The coal operators themselves did a very good job of making people, you know, labeling him as anti-coal, war on coal…
Has that resonated here?
Yes, it's resonated here. Sure it's resonated here. People want an enemy. They want someone to point a finger to. "You're the reason why this all happened."
The mine workers union endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, but did not back Obama in 2012, and a top union official says the union is not likely to endorse any presidential candidate this year.
If they don't want to back somebody, that's their opinion. I know who I'm backing, and I know a lot of coal miner brothers out there, and I know who they're backing.
Trump. At least he's giving me a glimmer of hope right now that it could change and get better. As to where Democrats ain't even giving me a glimmer of hope. It's just we're out, and that's it.
By not saying they endorse a candidate, what does that tell you?
That they're not endorsing the Democratic Party, which means they're leaning towards the Republican Party by not saying it.
In Greene county, where the population is 95 percent white, registered Democrats still outnumber registered Republicans, but that advantage is shrinking.
Voters here have favored the republican presidential candidate in the last three elections…but the Democrat carried Pennsylvania every time. For Donald trump to reverse that result, he will need to run up the vote in white, working class counties in coal country.
We're going to put the miners back to work. We're going to put the miners back to work!
At the Republican National Convention, delegates approved a platform calling coal "an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource." And, in his first speech as Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence attacked Hillary Clinton's stance on coal.
Where Donald Trump supports an all of the above strategy and will end the war on coal, Hillary Clinton actually promised an energy plan that would close American coal mines and put coal miners out of work.
Clinton has promised to spend 30 billion dollars for retraining displaced coal miners and other energy workers. But this comment at a March town hall was taken as a threat.
I'm the only candidate which has a policy about bringing opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country, because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.
Did she shoot herself in the foot with that comment?
Well, yeah, yes. She did. She hurt herself significantly. That's true.
Union leaders like Yankovich are also wary of trump because, they say, he offers few details to back up his vague promises about revitalizing the coal industry.
Can Trump bring that back?
I don't believe he can. I don't know what plan he has. If he's going to do it, I'd like to see that plan.
Unemployed coal miner Brian Schaum, who has traditionally voted Democratic, believes Trump's word.
I'm leaning towards Republicans simply because he's my only hope to bring back good wage jobs here. That's been his thing, get the coal industry up and running again. So I got to go with what he's saying.
Remember that job you applied for, that truck driving job?
The Obama administration is offering some assistance with more than $30 million in grants to help former coal and power workers in twelve states since last year.
Dave Serock, a local union leader who lost his job at the Emerald Mine, now works as a counselor for an organization helping former coal workers find — and train for — new jobs. Serock's says he's taken a $70 thousand dollar pay cut.
The biggest thing is, I think, the pressure that it puts on the individual knowing that it went from here, and now you're here, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it.
Your standard of living has changed?
Re-training is a tough sell to unemployed miners who cannot afford to spend one or two years learning a new trade: their unemployment benefits end after six months.
How do you pay your bills in the meantime while you're going? Part-time job is just not going to be enough to support them, even if they make cuts.
The new jobs, like driving trucks, pay far less than mining and often lack the health care and other benefits earned by union coal miners.
Most of our jobs that we're finding for our guys that were laid off, you're looking at $10 to $20 an hour, and $20 an hour is on the high side.
The impact is rippling through Greene county, which depends on mining and related industries for nearly a third of its tax revenue. Ed Hinerman owns the local NAPA auto parts dealership.
What are you down here?
Ok, well up to 30 percent off, our business is off by 30 percent.
Mines are still producing coal in Greene County, and some miners hope to get their jobs back. Brian Schaum isn't waiting for that to happen. He's gotten a crane operator license and is thinking of moving his family to Florida.
I just don't see it all rebounding. The mining industry always has its ups and downs, but this is probably the worst it's come across. And once it all dies off here, this place, there ain't going to be nothing left here.
For Dave Whipkey, the secure retirement he spent four decades building — with that pension and lifetime health care — is suddenly on shaky ground.
The house that we just bought two years ago, if they cut all that, we're probably putting our house up for sale. Because we just can't–we're getting by now, but we're sure not getting rich.
Do you see coal ever coming back here?
Yes. Yes I do. They closed Emerald mine down, they said there was no more coal. I don't believe that. There's coal.
Watch the Full Episode
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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