Hazard, Kentucky is one of those small coal-mining towns with one main road snaking through the hollow. Both sides of the road are lined with a handful of retail stores and restaurants. The windows on about half of those stores are now covered with newspaper. The signs out front say, “closed.”
That’s what happens in a one-industry town when the president turns against that industry. Carla Hall at tiny Feltner’s Barbershop, right on the main road, knows that too well.
"My business went down tremendously,” she said.
Like Carla, everyone in town, from the insurance salesman to the waitress at the coffee shop, is ultimately connected to money that comes out of the mine.
“When they start getting laid off, they stretch out the haircuts,” she said.
However, there is a new sense of optimism in coal country and that is linked to a new president who, from the campaign trail, frequently bellowed: “We are going to put our miners back to work.”
“I love mining coal,” Carlos Sturdill said 250 feet underground in the E4-1 mine in Hazard. That mine shut down in the Obama years. There are many factors that allowed the mine to re-open and people like Sturdill to get back to work.
For starters, the entire economy has seen a bump. That has created a demand for steel. The high-quality coal that comes out of Appalachia is well suited for making steel.
“I’m glad to be working. I’m thankful I’ve got a job again,” Sturdill said. Then you have President Trump who started rolling back regulations early in his time on the job. One of Trump’s early executive orders was to roll back the Stream Protection Rule. The SPR was created in the 11th hour of the Obama presidency and it would have placed a burden on coal companies to test streams before during and after mining. Trump followed up by undoing the 2015 Waters of the US rule, which broadened the definition of a body of water.
According to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the rule “allowed the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to assert Federal authority over an untold number of small bodies of water, including roadside ditches, short-lived streams and any other area where water may flow every 100 years.”
The industry is hopeful Trump will also repeal the Clean Power Plan and the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards act, which many argue put a heavy burden on coal by design.
"Obviously, we’re more optimistic,” said J. Mark Campbell, President of the Cambrian Coal Group. “We’re looking for new projects.”
That does not mean hard times are over for those people dependent on a coal mining paycheck. During the Obama administration, figures obtained by Fox News show that 36,800 coal miners lost their jobs. Last September, the number of people mining coal hit the lowest point since 1985.
Since Trump took office, 300 miners have been re-hired.
Ninety of the new hires are at the E4-1 mine in Hazard. But that was after the mine was hit by a series of layoffs since 2012 that left 460 workers out of a job.
“Maybe it’s a little C comeback at this point,” said Chris Hamilton Senior VP of the West Virginia Coal Association.
No one expects coal jobs to come back to their heyday. Some of the causes can be pinned on former President Obama.
Under pressure to get away from coal, some power plants shut down. Some were retrofitted to burn natural gas. Now that officials spent the money, they won’t go back -- especially because hydraulic fracturing makes natural gas available and cheap.
"So, a lot of that chunk of the market has been taken away,” said Dr. Anthony Szwilski of West Virginia’s Marshall University. “Even though coal is coming back and there will be employment in the future, they are unlikely to go back to where it was 10-15 years ago.”
Technology has also advanced. The reality is this: you can get more coal out of the ground now using fewer people.
"It will never be back like it was,” Campbell said.
Even Sturgill, although happy to be back underground doing the job he loves, knows coal mining is a way of life that has a limited future.
"I don’t have a son, but I wouldn’t tell him to mine,” he says as the beam from his headlamp follows his eyes and dips to the floor of the mine.