Under Obama, coal country fights for its way of life

Tue Feb 5, 2013 8:26am EST
 
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By Daniel Trotta

BEALLSVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - Leon Lieser has been a coal miner 49 years, his bent fingers testament to his first job, loading coal by hand into a bucket. Mining also led to a hip replacement and a knee replacement. He loves his job and his industry, despite what it has done to his body.

"It's a way of life. It's a proud life," said Lieser, 66.

It may also be doomed. Lieser's boss, Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp, said he fears for the end of coal, prodded by a U.S. president who has promoted wind and solar power while cracking down on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"There are no coal-fired plants being built. Mr. Obama took care of that. I think we're totally eliminated by 2035," said Murray, 73, a prominent advocate for his industry and a fund-raiser for Republican Party causes.

Despite Murray's protestations, the decline of the coal industry is being driven by the free market. U.S. natural gas production rose 16 percent from November 2008 to November 2012, creating a cheap supply that has made gas-generated electricity more competitive than that from coal.

Murray, too, decided to spend his life in the industry, even with the dangers readily apparent. His father was paralyzed from the neck down in a mining accident when Murray was 9 years old, and Murray broke his neck twice in mining accidents during the 16 years he worked underground, before he built the country's largest privately held coal company.

"I've got a birdcage of titanium and vanadium between (vertebrae) C2 and C8," said Murray, pulling back his collar to show a scar running down the back of his neck, the trace of a past surgery.

While cities such as Pittsburgh, about 75 miles to the north, have recovered from the decline of coal and steel, rural areas such as the Ohio Valley have been largely left behind. Four or five mines operate in an area that once had 25, veteran miners say.   Continued...

 
Processed coal streams out into a pile after being cleaned in the prep plant at the Century Mine near Beallsville, Ohio, January 25, 2013. While cities such as Pittsburgh have recovered from the decline of coal and steel, rural areas such as the Ohio Valley have been largely left behind. Four or five mines operate in an area that once had 25, veteran miners say. Picture taken January 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Cohn