Jon and Jim Rogers stand in the shadow of 50-foot-high piles of coal that are waiting to fuel the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. Some of this coal belongs to the Rogers Brothers Coal Company.
The Rogers family has helped feed the Paradise plant with coal for decades. But by the end of 2020, they will need to find a new client. In February, the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA] voted to close the last coal-fired unit at Paradise, despite objections from President Trump. In 2017, the plant’s other two units — the largest of their kind in the world when they went online in 1963 — were replaced with a power plant burning natural gas.
Coal plants have been retiring at a record pace in recent years, and coal stockpiles at U.S. power plants recently hit their lowest point in over a decade, according to data from the Department of Energy.
In Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, that means many people and businesses are trying to plan for a future less reliant on coal — an industry that's been synonymous with this part of western Kentucky since the state's first commercial coal mine opened in 1820.
Some, like Jon Rogers, hope a private investor will buy the plant from the TVA and forestall that transition.
"What you see here has kept this country a world leader and it can do so in the future, but we have to use common sense," he says, standing in front of the Paradise Fossil Plant’s three cooling towers. "You can't just overnight say, 'Well, we're gonna completely change our energy portfolio.' In time we can, but the technology needs to be there."
But Jim Rogers says if that doesn't happen, there are other places to sell coal from Muhlenberg County.
"There are markets literally all over the world for that coal," he says. "[The issue] is how it affects the population here."
That growing demand for American coal overseas is apparent at a coal mine just a few miles down the road from the Paradise plant. Dump trucks are busy hauling tons of coal from a towering pile as more coal pours off conveyor belts that run deep underground. This mine is ramping up its production, Jim Rogers says, even as the TVA winds down its operations at the power plant.
Coal jobs have been on the decline for decades in the U.S., but they plummeted more than 40 percent between the beginning of 2012 and 2017, according to Department of Labor statistics. High maintenance and regulatory compliance costs make it hard for aging coal plants like the one in Muhlenberg County to compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.
But coal exports have rebounded under President Trump to their highest levels in five years, with India, Europe and Japan buying more as new tariffs curb demand from China.
Jon Rogers says those exports have saved the U.S. coal industry from complete collapse, and he credits Trump for that.
"He's trying within his ability to help keep this industry alive. But as far as us in the coal fields seeing a lot of change, it's been minimal," he says. "I will tell you this: I believe that we have a coal industry still existing, albeit a glimmer of what it once was, because of President Trump."
This coal mine might get by for now on exports, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts coal production will hit a four-decade low next year as exports level off and the industry continues to struggle under environmental regulations and competition from cheap natural gas. And 2019 figures from the U.S. Census suggest the export boom might be waning.
Curtis McGehee, judge executive of Muhlenberg County, says regardless of larger trends in the coal business, the closure of the Paradise plant will hit the local economy hard.
"The last thing you want to happen is for a steam plant to stop burning coal," he says. "I don't know how our community with ever recover from that."
McGehee says the impacts will go far beyond the coal industry itself.
"It takes trade workers to keep that unit up and going. For example, it takes iron workers and boilermakers and plumbers and pipe-fitters and carpenters and Teamster truck drivers and electricians," he says. "I think everything from the dollar store to the timber industry is affected by this unit closing down."
Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Josh Clendenen says the decision to close the coal plant was driven by long-term economic concerns, too.
“We’ve reduced our coal fleet because of environmental and regulatory requirements,” he says. “Being an older plant, it made economical sense that we can’t continually invest in that particular plant and not invest elsewhere.”
But, Clendenen says, TVA still has a gas-fired, combined-cycle power station at Paradise.
“TVA is not forgetting Muhlenberg County,” he says. “We’ll be working with the leadership and the folks in the area just to make sure that it’s as smooth a transition as possible.”
While few, if any, people in the county want to see the coal industry disappear completely, some say the local economy has long been too dependent on a single industry.
Peggy Williams grew up in a family of coal miners and became the regional president of Old National Bank. As coal continues to decline, she says, more change is coming for western Kentucky.
"We think that change can be for good," Williams says. "I think you'll see that our culture has changed in the next five or 10 years, and that will be for the better."
Williams now chairs the board of the Muhlenberg County Alliance for Progress, a local economic development group.
The group is trying to attract new employers to the county, promoting industries besides coal, such as local lumber mills, and nearby aluminum and plastics factories.
Williams says she can't imagine there being a time when there's not a need for coal, but that Muhlenberg County's economy will have to diversify in the next few years nonetheless. And she is optimistic that it can.
"The people that are here love the community and so they're resilient," Williams says. "We have a lot of pride, and so we will look for ways to keep ourselves strong and viable."
Gary Jones, director of the Muhlenberg County Alliance for Progress, says he's also pushing the county to look for new industries beyond coal. As a former coal miner, however, he understands those jobs are difficult to replace.
Decades ago, Jones left a young career in teaching to follow his father's path into the coal mines.
"By doing so, my salary my first year in 1975 at the mines was about two and a half times what my teaching salary was," he says.
Jones was laid off in 1992 — two years shy of the 20 years he would have needed to work to get full retirement benefits. But he has fond memories of his time in the coal business.
"I'm sort of one of these dress-up guys, kind of clean cut, my wife couldn't even believe I was going to work in the mines, but I did like it," he says. "I guess you grow up with it, and Muhlenberg County people, we maybe look at it a little different than other folks. I'm also realistic enough to know that coal will never play the role in Muhlenberg County as big a scale as it once did."
Jones and Williams are planning for the likelihood that coal will never sustain the economy in Muhlenberg County the way it did for decades. The Muhlenberg County Alliance for Progress is working with the local high school and community college to develop vocational training in other careers, like nursing and welding, trying to give younger generations the kind of economic mobility they once had in the coal industry.
The Rogers family, too, is considering steps to make their business a little less dependent on coal. Just down the road from the active mine that's upping its production for exports is another one of their properties: 2,000 acres that were once stripped bare for a coal mine, but have since been reclaimed and planted with grass, alfalfa and clover. On a recent visit, birds, butterflies and a coyote were roaming the green fields.
Jim Rogers says there are other people interested in this land, including a solar company.
Jon Rogers says coal will always be a part of Muhlenberg County, but if someone wants to build a solar energy farm on top of this old mine, he'd welcome that, too.
"What better place for it to spring up than right here on reclaimed ground, where you can see the Paradise power plant in the distance, right there?" he says. "What better place for the next era, next step?"
This segment aired on June 11, 2019.
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