Coal country is pinning its hopes on Trump

Living on Earth
Trump coal supporter
Coal miners made up a consistent interest group across the country at Trump rallies.

Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons

One of the promises President Donald Trump made on the campaign trail was to reopen coal mines and put miners back to work. The message resonated in Pennsylvania’s coal country and helped Trump win the state last November. Now, people here are watching to see if he’ll keep his promise.

Many of these voters don't expect miracles, but they do want Trump to put coal first, according to some residents in the southwest area of the state.

“A lot of the coal miners are out of work, and their families are in need of work, as well as the construction aspect,” says Dean Courtwright. “I feel that there's a lot of people out there without jobs.”

Another local, Kent Knight, says, “I would like to see more jobs and less imports. I am definitely against imports.”

Greene County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, has lost a third of its jobs in coal mining — its largest industry — over the last four years. Trump, who promised to slash environmental regulations on coal, won the county by 40 points.

The coal mine that resident Dave Hathaway worked in closed a year ago. He spent most of 2016 sending out resumes, looking for work. The search became even more urgent when his son Deacon was born in August. Hathaway’s union, the United Mine Workers of America, traditionally supports Democrats. But, during the last two election cycles, in 2012 and 2016, it did not endorse any presidential candidate. In November, Hathaway gave Trump his vote.

“I voted for Trump. I mean, a coal miner would be stupid not to,” he says. Hathaway recently got hired at a nearby mine. He thinks he'll have a better shot at keeping his job, with Trump in office — even though he didn't like a lot of things the president said during the campaign. 

“He is a 'wacko,'” he says. “I mean, he's never gonna stop being a wacko, you know what I mean? But, the things he did say — the good stuff — was good for the coal mining community. But we'll see what happens.”

Tom Crooks, a vice president at RG Johnson, a construction firm that builds mine shafts, has also witnessed the decline in coal, firsthand. “Two years ago, this week, we had 145 employees, and right now we have 22,” he notes.

Crooks doesn’t use the phrase "war on coal,” but he does think federal regulations mounted by President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency have weighed down his industry — regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which curbs greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Crooks wants fewer rules and more government research into making coal as clean as possible.

“Really, what's happened over the last eight years is [that] smart people stopped working on coal, in part because of the way the federal government and the state governments looked at us,” Crooks says. “We just want them to start looking to coal as an option. That’s all.”

Eliminating regulations probably won’t bring all the coal-mining jobs back, because one big reason for coal’s demise is the low price of natural gas — some of it coming from gas wells nearby.

Blair Zimmerman, a Democratic Greene County commissioner and a former coal miner, supported Hillary Clinton during the last election, but he wishes the Obama administration had spent more time helping coal-dependent communities transition their economies.

“No one's knocked on my door and said, ‘Hey, what can we do to bring back manufacturing? How can we help you help yourselves?’” Zimmerman says. “That's my beef. Coal miners can do anything. They can transition to whatever.”

Instead of a return to what once was, Zimmerman wants Trump to help his community prepare for what comes next.

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.  

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