By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
The news keeps getting grimmer for Kentucky’s embattled coal industry — but the president of the Kentucky Coal Association said it might not be quite as bad as it looks at first glance.
During the third quarter of 2013, Kentucky lost 439 mining jobs and saw production fall by another 5 percent, down to 19,820,780 tons of coal mined in the state.
Continuing a trend, most of the losses occurred in eastern Kentucky where production was off by nearly 10 percent and employment fell 4.8 percent. By comparison, western Kentucky production was off by only three-tenths of a percent and employment was down just one-tenth of a percent.
“The report is certainly bad news,” said Bill Bissett, Kentucky Coal Association president, “but while we’re still seeing reductions it’s not as bad as those we saw last year.”
Bissett said the industry expects a leveling off of production and jobs losses but isn’t entirely sure the industry is there just yet. He said current predictions are that central Appalachian coal will continue to be mined, although not at previous levels.
The possibility of a cold winter may also drive up natural gas prices which in turn might make coal more competitive.
Bissett said he and others in the industry are anxious to see the fourth quarter report on production and employment and especially the first quarter report for 2014. The 2014 first quarter report should reflect any impact of the winter on natural gas prices as well as the termination at the end of this year of some pre-sold coal contracts.
But Bissett thinks the most recent quarterly report is important to remind the public and policy makers how critical coal is to the Kentucky economy. He said for every coal job lost, three more direct, non-coal jobs are lost and many more are indirectly affected at retail businesses that depend on customers working in the coal industry.
As of the end of September, there were 12,339 mining jobs in the state, down 439 since the end of June. According to data collected by the state Cabinet for Energy and Environment, 323 coal miners were laid off during the third quarter. Another 119 people who work at coal preparation plants lost their jobs while there was an increase of three office jobs at coal sites.
Continuing recent trends, eastern Kentucky took the biggest hit, losing 403 jobs, a drop of 4.3 percent. Eastern Kentucky employment now stands at 8,037. That’s down from 15,000 in 2006.
Western Kentucky lost 36 mining jobs, a decrease of only one-tenth of 1 percent. There are now 4,356 coal mining jobs in the western part of the state, but that’s up from 2,949 in 2006. That reflects the increased demand for higher sulfur Western Kentucky coal as power plants have installed air pollution controls and the higher cost of mining thinner seams in the more rugged Eastern Kentucky coal fields.
Production also fell statewide in the third quarter to $19,820,780 tons, a drop of 5.1 percent. Most of the decrease again was felt in Eastern Kentucky where production fell 9.9 percent. Statewide, $13,385,570 tons of coal came from underground mines while 6,435,210 tons were surface mined.
Union County in western Kentucky continues to lead the state in coal production, having supplanted Pike County as the number one producing county earlier this year. Pike County remains number two at 2,638,776 tons. Hopkins County in western Kentucky is number three at 2,264,283 tons.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at ww.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.