WAYNE, W.Va. — There is pain across the nation’s coal fields, but here in West Virginia, the disruption is particularly acute.
Mines are closing almost every month. Sawmills that provide wooden support beams for the tunnels are laying off workers, and diners are putting up signs asking their customers to pray for the miners.
The coal industry, long the heart that pumped the economy here, is in deep trouble, buffeted by power plants switching to cheap natural gas, crippling debt, mounting foreign competition and increasingly strict regulations to limit greenhouse gases and toxic emissions like mercury.
“It’s just the times we are facing,” said Mitchell Maynard, a miner, as he left the Camp Creek mine recently after one of his last shifts before he and more than 400 of his co-workers lose their jobs.
Mr. Maynard, who wears a large tattoo on his upper left arm showing a joyous Jesus embracing a blissful miner, has been contemplating what he will do to support his family since he learned last month that the mine will close for good. He has yet to come up with an answer, but he has not lost hope. “I know I will find guidance from the Lord,” he said.
Mr. Maynard’s once-mighty employer, Alpha Natural Resources, and the entire coal industry could use some divine intervention right about now. The most immediate challenge to the coal industry is the hydraulic fracturing revolution that has produced a glut of natural gas over the last four years, making the fuel cheaper to burn and stimulating a relentless switch by utilities away from coal.
Since January, six domestic coal producers have filed for bankruptcy, including Patriot Coal, which applied for Chapter 11 for the second time.
The decline has taken a heavy toll here in Wayne County and the surrounding area in West Virginia and Kentucky, where roughly one in three of the nation’s 80,000 coal miners work.
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