How Coal Country Is Cleaning Up Its Act

A program in eastern Kentucky is retraining miners in industries that help mitigate the environmental impacts of mining on communities.
kentucky-appalachia.jpg

A six-month internship with Mountain Association for Community Economic Development offers training in new energy efficiency professions, placement with a local employer, and the potential for longer-term employment after the job ended. 

Photo by Moof/Getty Images

Like many men raised in eastern Kentucky, Frank Morris spent a chunk of his working life in the coal industry.

Raised in the city of Hazard, Morris did a little bit of everything, from shoveling belt to diesel mechanics.

“Back then, if you were going to pick to live around here and make good money, you either went into the coal business or you went into the medical field,” Morris said.

Like many others, however, Morris was laid off several years ago when the coal industry started contracting. Metallurgical coal, used for making steel, was waning as part of a regular global cycle, and steam coal, used to produce electricity, suffered a long-term decline as power utilities increasingly moved toward cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable wind and solar energy.

Morris found a job at Walmart, but given the cost of child care, he realized he was actually losing money by working there. He tried being a stay-at-home dad, but he found himself yearning to contribute to his family’s financial well-being in a more tangible way, so he started taking small carpentry jobs. Morris had been doing that for a while when he heard about an internship for former coal miners.

Donate to YES!

The six-month internship with Mountain Association for Community Economic Development offered training in new energy efficiency professions, placement with a local employer, and the potential for longer-term employment after the job ended. Morris applied for the internship and was accepted, along with another ex-miner named Randall Howard. The two received hands-on training in conducting energy audits—learning how to use equipment such as infrared cameras, duct blasters, blower doors, and much more—and went to work at their respective jobs, Morris for the nonprofit Housing Development Alliance and Howard for Christian Outreach with Appalachian People, an affordable housing organization.

Today “things are a lot better for us,” Morris said. “We’re in a better position financially and with our home lives. I’m able to be home every day, most days, before 5 o’clock. That’s something I’ve never had before in my life.”

The money isn’t quite what he made working coal, but it’s a lot better than what he earned at Walmart. He’s also found a better work-life balance than either of those two previous jobs offered.

MACED’s energy efficiency internship program is just one of many initiatives designed to retrain workers laid off during the cratering of the coal industry over the last decade. The coal industry has steadily declined since the 1950s, largely because of mechanization. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing technology in the 2000s leading to an abundance of natural gas, as well as federal regulations that resulted in the closure of older coal-fired power plants, the industry has collapsed in the last decade. Many companies went into bankruptcy or shuttered, resulting in mass layoffs and a ripple effect that’s spread to related businesses, such as railroads and equipment manufacturers.

According to a report produced by Kentucky state officials and reported in the Lexington Herald Leader, the number of coal jobs in 2013 had declined to 12,550—the lowest since the state started recording the figure in 1927. By August 2018, coal jobs had dropped even further to 6,238, according to the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy, which produces quarterly reports on the coal industry.

“Energy efficiency is something that is especially needed in the coal regions.”

As a result, many coalfield communities have suffered economic distress and depopulation. Local and state officials have tried a number of approaches to reverse that trend, retraining miners for jobs in industries on the rise, such as computer coding and outdoor recreation.

MACED’s program, funded by a $2 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $100,000 from Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc., and a $1 million match from MACED’s venture capital loan fund, is designed to build on related skills used in mining that can be adapted for energy efficiency, a growing sector. According to a study by E4TheFuture and Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), nearly 2.25 million Americans work in energy efficiency, including 24,579 people in Kentucky. That figure includes those who work with efficient appliances and lighting, heating and ventilation systems, building materials and insulation, energy audits, building certifications, and more. MACED saw the internship program as an opportunity to add to a growing field while also building local expertise.

“We thought, let’s see if we can develop some local champions who have technical skills,” said Chris Woolery, a program coordinator at MACED. “They can be advocates, they can be independent third-party experts, and they can connect folks to financing through various mechanisms. When I come to Hazard and talk about the gospel of energy efficiency, I’m not received the same way Frank Morris is when he speaks to his community. When Frank became the resident efficiency person at HDA [Housing Development Alliance], we immediately we saw the ripple effects.”

As the first two interns, Howard and Morris were both placed at affiliate organizations of the Appalachia Heat Squad, a collaborative program aimed at expanding access to energy efficient home improvements. They learned how to evaluate a home’s energy efficiency, how to identify and implement improvements, and how to educate homeowners about programs that could help them fund those investments. During their internships, Morris conducted 23 audits and 13 retrofits, while Howard did 22 audits and 5 retrofits.

Energy efficiency programs carry additional possibilities for improving people’s lives. 

“Energy efficiency is something that is especially needed in the coal regions,” Morris said. “Around here, electricity has always been cheap. Now we’re getting all these rate increases. That touches everybody—not just doctors and lawyers but grandmothers on fixed incomes, people who have to make a decision: ‘If I don’t pay my electrical bill they’ll cut my power off, but if I do, I might have to miss a few meals this month. Or do I really need my blood pressure medicine this month?’ It’s a hard decision.”

Instead of providing financial aid to pay those electric bills, the Heat Squad aims to fix the issue that’s causing the bills to be high, Morris said.

“Especially around here, housing stock is especially old,” Morris said. “And people living in mobile homes and double-wides can really benefit from this program.”

These energy efficiency programs carry additional possibilities for improving people’s lives. A five-year study of respiratory health in Letcher and Harlan counties found that people who lived in either a mobile home or public housing were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with asthma than people who lived in single-family housing.

The study, known as the Mountain Air Project, now in its second phase, involves prevention. Study participants who have been diagnosed with asthma and had symptoms within the past year meet four times with a trained nurse, and on the third visit, they receive a home assessment. In Harlan County, that’s conducted by Howard, one of the former MACED interns.

“He looks for sources of allergens and irritants in the home,” said Beverly May, a 28-year nurse pursuing a doctor of public health degree at the University of Kentucky, and who manages the Mountain Air Project.

She said Howard is “really brilliant in finding things that can cause trouble. He’s looking for leaks under the sink, pests that are hidden away in dark places you wouldn’t think to look, sources of mold around the outside of the house, water in the basement. Then he talks with the homeowner about what they can do to correct the situation.”

There’s often overlap between healthy homes and those that are energy efficient.

“There’s a ton of different ways we could diversify this economy.”

“If a home has cracks and crevices, the door isn’t properly sealed, the windows aren’t properly sealed, then not only does cold air come in during the winter, but there’s also the possibility for pests to come in,” May said. “If you can fix one problem, you might be fixing several problems.”

There are two main challenges. One is that people often feel uncomfortable letting strangers examine their homes, even for a beneficial reason. The other is that the repairs needed to fix problems sometimes outstrip the finances of homeowners. In both cases, Howard is well-positioned to help.

As a local, Howard can talk to homeowners to reassure them.

“I’ll try to connect with them in any way possible to try to ease their mind about letting me go through their home,” Howard said. “I try to show them I’m more of a friend than an enemy, that I’m there to help them. I live in the mountains myself. I guess they connect with me pretty good because I have lived in the past in some of the conditions that they live in. I’m open with them. I tell them I ain’t here to judge you because you’ve got clothes piled up in the corner or dirty dishes in the sink. That’s no concern to me unless there’s mold growing on it. I talk to them a little bit to show them I ain’t there to judge them.”

As for the financial piece, the mission of Howard’s employer, Christian Outreach with Appalachian People, is to build affordable rural housing and offer programs that can offset costs.

The results can make a big difference in a homeowner’s life. Howard describes one such rehabilitation project: “We went in, it didn’t have no insulation under the floor, and the roof was leaking. We put a new roof on, insulation under the floor, a new heat pump. I had to go back later to test everything out. I walked in and there’s an 80-year-old man. He stood up, walked over to me, and gave me a hug. He said, ‘We’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never been as comfortable as we are now. You’ve made this house better, so much more comfortable.’”

The homeowner’s electric bill was cut in half, Howard said.

MACED has now hired two more interns in Hazard for its second round of the program. Their focus is on commercial and industrial instead of residential projects. Because of economies of scale, Woolery said, businesses are often quicker to invest in energy efficiency projects than individual families, and there’s more immediate work available. MACED is hiring for three more internships as well: one doing commercial energy efficiency work in Paintsville, a second more focused on the marketing of energy efficiency and renewable energy in Berea, and a third trained for solar photovoltaic cell installation in Lexington.

Woolery hopes to push some of those interns toward the solar power, where there’s potentially even more opportunity.

“We’re just showing that there’s a ton of different ways we could diversify this economy,” Woolery said. “Knowing we don’t have access to any silver bullets, all we can do is shoot as many silver BBs as we can.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.