Coal Stories 2 After the election. The price of a certain kind of coal goes up. People's lives start changing. Some think it's because of Trump.
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Coal Stories 2

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Coal Stories 2

Coal Stories 2

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: And I'm Chris Benderev.

MCEVERS: And this is EMBEDDED.

BENDEREV: We're following people in the coal counties of central Appalachia over the first year and change of Donald Trump's administration. And these episodes are in order. So if you haven't, go back and listen from the beginning.

MCEVERS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Tammy Fields' dad worked in coal at this company in Buchanan County, Va., called United.

TAMMY FIELDS: That's all I ever knew was United Coal Company and my daddy working...

MCEVERS: Wow.

FIELDS: ...There.

FIELDS: Her dad worked at a prep plant, which is where they wash and sort the coal - sometimes day and night.

Did he make good money? Like, was - I mean, if you don't mind me asking.

FIELDS: Yes. Yeah, he did. He did pretty good - two-story house, and we did pretty well.

BENDEREV: Tammy grew up, got married, had her own kids. In 2008, her husband showed her an ad for an HR job she might want at that same coal company.

FIELDS: Of course, to me, United was just something I was raised with - that company, their company picnics and going and doing. So when I seen that - he showed it to me and I'm thinking, well, I'll apply. I'll just kind of see what happens. And then of course, I got on the job, and I loved it.

MCEVERS: She mostly loved the people she worked with. Then about four years later, the coal market went into what many say was its worst downturn ever. As we said in our last episode, the price of coal plummeted during those years. Coal companies went bankrupt. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. And as we said, a lot of people blame that on the government.

FIELDS: It was on the news. I mean, you know, Obama was constantly making comments and several of them that there was just - I don't remember how it was all worded. But, I mean, then you can kind of see it because then the prices started dropping on coal.

BENDEREV: Prices started dropping, and there were layoffs. Tammy's company closed down one entire operation in Kentucky - almost 200 people. And Tammy, who worked in HR, was the one who had to tell people that they'd lost their jobs.

FIELDS: I had one guy - look - and just - he begged. He said, you know, just, you don't have to pay me. Just give me whatever. Just please let me work. Cut me down to part time. Just don't lay me off. I don't know what I'm going to do for my kids. And how am I going to put food on their table? And when you've got a grown man looking at you with tears in his eyes, I mean, that's just hard. And that was - that happened a lot.

MCEVERS: And then Tammy got laid off, too. It took her six months to get a new job at a nursing home. She drives an hour each way to work and makes less money. Then, in 2016, the owner of a local grocery store chain suggested that Tammy should tell her story to Donald Trump. So Tammy and her husband went to this campaign roundtable a couple hours away.

FIELDS: And then he literally just sat down with us and talked to us. He asked us questions and - you know, what can I do to help?

BENDEREV: Tammy believed Trump when he said he would bring back coal jobs, so she voted for him. And at the time we're talking to her, a few weeks after the election, things are starting to change.

MCEVERS: The price of the coal they mine around where Tammy lives is going up. And one of those guys who Tammy had to lay off - she just ran into his wife.

FIELDS: I'm like, what is he doing now? And she said, well, he's currently working for, like, a contractor.

MCEVERS: A contract coal mine. He doesn't have health insurance, but he's back to work underground as a coal miner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Remember, we are following people whose lives depend on coal to see if Trump can keep his promises. And in this episode, it's the early months of Trump's administration, and it looks to some people in the coal counties like he can.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: All right, we are back. So after the election, the price of metallurgical coal - that's the kind of coal that you use to make steel, the kind they mine in Buchanan County and the surrounding counties - has gone up. And it seems to a lot of people that Donald Trump's win had something to do with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Maybe it's a new confidence in the coal industry. Now there's a coal supporter in the White House - like the way the stock market can go up when there's confidence. That's what some people in these coal counties believe is going on. There is a lot more to why the price of coal went up, like supply and demand on the global market. But for now, just know that most people in the counties are focusing on this confidence. Like, if you believe hard enough that things will get better, they get better. And in the months after the election, people's lives are changing, people like Kyle Johnson and Gary Dotson. So first, Kyle.

BENDEREV: We first meet Kyle Johnson in a mine safety training class. Miners have to get the safety training if they want to work. So when companies are hiring new miners or miners who've been out of work for a while, there are more training classes. And that's what's happening early in the Trump administration. One trainer told me that he taught as many classes in the first three months of 2017 as he had the entire year before.

TOM MCLAUGHLIN: We're going to talk a little bit about some hazards and have some illustrations of it.

BENDEREV: The guy teaching this class is Tom McLaughlin (ph). And Tom spends most of his day explaining proper safety technique for miners.

MCLAUGHLIN: So really be sure that you're wearing gloves whenever you're handling cables. You have a better chance of surviving a shock.

BENDEREV: Each student has to complete 80 hours of training. And sometimes, Tom will fill those hours by powering up these really old safety videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAFETY VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Workmen must work together and look out for the other guy. This miner did not take these precautions, and his lamp cord caught in the rotating auger with disastrous consequences.

BENDEREV: And suddenly...

(SOUNDBITE MACHINE WHIRRING)

BENDEREV: ...An actor playing a coal miner appears to get pulled underneath this huge, grinding machine. And the implication is he dies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAFETY VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Your working environment is decidedly more hostile or hazardous than that of most other occupations.

BENDEREV: You guys from around here?

Kyle Johnson is one of the young guys getting trained today. He's got blonde hair and stubble. And I ride with him to lunch.

KYLE JOHNSON: That's my safety glasses, by the way.

BENDEREV: And the first thing that strikes me about Kyle is that he seems completely unfazed by all these ominous training videos. In fact, despite all the reasons to be scared, Kyle couldn't be more excited to get a job in a coal mine. He already dresses like a coal miner even though he's not one yet. He wears these baggy navy work pants with reflective stripes down the sides. And he tells me that he's wanted to work in a mine ever since he visited one when he was younger.

JOHNSON: I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And I thought - well, this is what I want to do. I've been hooked ever since. But I guess I was just born at the wrong time.

BENDEREV: The wrong time because when he first tried getting a mining job, it was 2015. And the industry was at its lowest point in decades. But now he's got this sense that things might be improving. So he's taking this class.

Do you have a lot of friends who've gotten training?

JOHNSON: Not really. Most of them think it's a lost cause nowadays, I guess. Now...

BENDEREV: What do they say to you?

JOHNSON: They just think I'm crazy. And like, they think I need to, you know, go to school and all that stuff.

BENDEREV: Kyle did try going to college. I talked to one of his classmates who he's been friends with since they were kids. His name's Isaiah Thomas (ph). And Isaiah says Kyle was obsessed with coal.

ISAIAH THOMAS: Even when we were in school - I always make fun of him for this. But we would be in school, and we would go to the computer lab. And I would be sitting there doing my classwork and look over and Kyle is watching "Coal."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COAL")

BENDEREV: It was a show on the Discovery Channel.

THOMAS: (Laughter) It ran for, like, one season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COAL")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Hank overshot his mark ramming the field. When he hit it, he threw the belt out of alignment.

HANK TOLER: That was my fault. Sorry. I'll take the blame for that.

THOMAS: Kyle, he watched that show all the time. Like, he'd just be sitting there. I'm like, do you have school work to do? He's like yeah, I've got a couple of things I probably should do. And then he'd go right back to watching someone going down in the hole. Or - watching "Coal" - that's all he ever did.

BENDEREV: Isaiah finished college, got a business administration degree. But Kyle dropped out. He joined the Marines, then the reserves. Now he does landscaping. But that's really just to fund his relentless pursuit of a coal job. And it's an actual pursuit, like in his Dodge Ram with a stack of resumes.

JOHNSON: I drive around Buchanan County about 10 hours a day about once or twice a week looking for jobs. And then I come to Dickenson and Wise, wherever - ask people who they know and everything.

BENDEREV: There might be a little more hiring going on these days, but there's also a lot of experienced coal miners ready to fill those open jobs. Kyle has already put several thousand miles on his truck driving around all these counties in just a month of searching. And every afternoon, he calls up his friend Isaiah to update him on the job hunt. Isaiah, who has a job in sales and works in an office, thinks this whole thing is hopeless. Honestly, he thinks me following Kyle is hopeless, too.

THOMAS: He was telling me - he said, yeah, some guy from NPR wants to interview on my job. And I said, well, good luck to that guy 'cause you're not going to get a job (laughter). And he's like, well, I don't know. I might get one. I'm like no, he's probably just going around with you in a truck, and you're going to hand out resumes. And that's going to be the end of that one (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: For Kyle, it's not just about getting a job. It's also about this other thing that he really wants to be true - that you can still graduate from high school and then make decent money and live a good life. And here, the way to do that has been coal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: All right, we are back. And just know that in future episodes, we are going to keep following Kyle while he tries to get that job.

Now in these early months after Trump is elected, some people are already getting jobs. We know this from Gary Dotson. He's one of the people doing the hiring. Gary is a coal mine operator. That means big companies contract him to do the mining. And with this upturn in coal, three of Gary's guys have left and gotten new jobs. So Gary has just hired three new young guys. And he's psyched.

GARY DOTSON: You know, we have to start training these boys. If we don't train some of these kids, then this is going to be a dying art.

MCEVERS: Gary has worked in coal his whole life, and he has seen the industry go up and down. In the good times, he could do stuff like buy a second house. In the bad times, he had to live off his savings. But this latest downturn, this one during the Obama years, Gary says it's the worst he's ever seen. During that downturn, the company that has a contract with Gary cut what it pays him by 20 percent. Gary and his partners cut their own salaries 20 percent. They cut the workers' pay by 10 percent. And they eliminated the workers' health insurance.

DOTSON: And then we just said, we'll just have to try to survive. And if we have to cut them anymore, we'll just quit. We won't try to do this.

MCEVERS: What Gary is saying here is things have been so bad that he's been seriously considering shutting down his coal mining business, one that he's run for more than 30 years - until Donald Trump got elected.

Like I said, now things are starting to change. The price of metallurgical coal has gone way up, but Gary is still locked into his current contract. So if he can hold on just a little bit longer, he thinks things will get better. He can renegotiate his contract or even get a second contract with a new company. I ask Gary's partner Barry Estep about all this. He's in the trailer they use for an office at the mine eating lunch.

Do you think things are going to get better now? I mean, a lot of people around...

BARRY ESTEP: I think it will get better. Think it'll be, you know, a lot better than it has been the last year or two. Maybe this is a light at the end of the tunnel we've all been hoping for that'll get things turned around and changed some.

MCEVERS: When he says this, he means Donald Trump.

So Gary really wants us to see what it's like in the mine.

DOTSON: We are ready to go.

MCEVERS: OK. So I put on a hard hat with a light on it, and we get on this thing called a buggy. It's like an industrial golf cart. We lay down flat.

I'll get on that side? OK.

Gary's got on his hard hat and coveralls with reflective tape. He opens these metal doors to the hole - it's literally just a hole in the side of the mountain - and gets back in the buggy. And we just drive in.

DOTSON: Is this your first trip underground?

MCEVERS: Yes.

DOTSON: You haven't panicked on me yet.

MCEVERS: No. What's there to panic about?

DOTSON: It's not like you think it is.

MCEVERS: OK.

DOTSON: You don't get a good picture unless you do what you're doing today. Then you can go back and talk firsthand what you've seen.

MCEVERS: And the thing that surprises me at first is how orderly it all is. I guess I just expected this dark, chaotic place. But what we're doing is driving straight down what feels like a road.

It's so crazy. We're inside a mountain - driving inside a mountain (laughter).

All along the road are what look like little square rooms that have been cut out of the mountain. Each one has a number.

DOTSON: And your primary escape way is where your fresh are is. And your secondary escape way is you...

MCEVERS: The other thing I notice right away is this feeling of just how dangerous this work can be. Mine accidents have decreased over the decades, but really horrible things still do happen. The last big mine explosion killed 29 people in 2010 in West Virginia.

DOTSON: Now, right here is a refuge chamber through that door. And you...

MCEVERS: Refuge?

DOTSON: You'll see one of these lifelines. That's what you go get in in case something happens, you know. But that's where I'm not going to go. I'm going to find my way out of here if I can. If I'm a-livin' (ph), I'm going to move. You see that little orange button...

MCEVERS: What was that big noise?

DOTSON: ...That little orange button on the bottom of this right here?

MCEVERS: Is that a panic button?

DOTSON: That's a panic button.

MCEVERS: Being a miner is no joke.

At one point, Gary says this thing to me - I wish all these coal mines could just shut down for three months. And then people would see all the lights go out in New York and D.C.

DOTSON: They'll never know until their heat and lights go off. They'll never know.

MCEVERS: I later learned that's not totally true. Now it's a combination of coal, natural gas and other sources that keep the heat and lights on. But I get what Gary's saying. He wants people to appreciate this work.

DOTSON: Come on. I'll take you over here.

MCEVERS: OK.

He shows me the main machine that does the work. It's this massive thing called a continuous miner. It has this huge, jagged rotator things that cut into the mountain and turn it into a big pile of rock, dust and coal.

Oh, wow. So it's, like, boring into the rock in the front.

DOTSON: And that was six ton right then.

MCEVERS: Just then?

DOTSON: Six ton.

MCEVERS: Wow.

We watch for a while, and then we head back out. It's a mile and a half to the entrance.

There's the outside world. Coming out of the hole.

I don't fully realize this until I come out, but emerging back into the world is a really intense feeling. Like, you just did this crazy thing. You went so far under the mountain, you were in the next town. And if you're a miner, you did this while also extracting something that makes the steel that built our country, stuff like bridges and skyscrapers. And you made it out alive. To do that every day must feel like a big deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We should say not everybody in the coal counties feels the way Kyle and Gary do about coal mining.

BENDEREV: We hear that from a guy named Brad Pennington, who we meet at the hotel where we always stay, the Comfort Inn in Buchanan County.

(DOOR OPENING)

BENDEREV: Brad works the front desk.

BRAD PENNINGTON: Yeah. Well, I mean, the lobby looks like it's a part of "The Golden Girls" set. So yeah.

BENDEREV: He's kind of darkly sarcastic. But thoughtful, too. He always makes sure to book you a room on the side of the hotel with the best view of the mountains. And he tells us how fun it was to grow up here hunting and fishing and riding four wheelers in the mountains. But, he says, being an adult here - he's 22 - is not so easy.

When did you start to realize that fact?

PENNINGTON: You figure it out pretty quick. I applied for quite a few jobs senior year of high school, and only one I got was Walmart, and that was temp work through winter.

BENDEREV: After Walmart, Brad tried going to community college. But then he dropped out. He worked in a scrapyard then for a little while as a security guard at a coal mine. But then a guy died in the mine, and Brad got spooked. And he heard layoffs were coming so he quit. Brad's dad has worked in coal for a long time, but he hurt his back doing it.

PENNINGTON: And he told me from the very beginning, just don't do it. Just go somewhere else. Do anything else.

BENDEREV: So Brad got the hotel job. Now he works the night shift, makes about $8 an hour. He lives at home with his parents, he's single and most of his high school friends have left the county.

PENNINGTON: There's just - there's nothing here in Buchanan County. It's slowly dying.

BENDEREV: How does that feel?

PENNINGTON: It scares the shit out of you, if you don't mind me saying that. I mean, it really does. I mean, if you got fired tomorrow or quit tomorrow, there's absolutely no opportunity to get another one. I mean, you're fighting 50 other people on a list a mile long to get a minimum-wage job anymore. I mean, you get a job, you keep it because you know you've got to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: But even if there are more coal jobs in his hometown right now, Brad thinks that this upturn is just a blip in the boom and bust cycle. He doesn't agree with a lot of his friends or relatives who think that Trump's election means coal's going to make some big comeback.

PENNINGTON: It is a dying industry, and you can't keep propping it up and hoping for it to last forever because it won't. And they know that, but they don't care. They just want it to work right here, right now so they can live happy and have their money and whatever. And they would rather save 50 jobs for five years versus create 500 jobs in 10 years. You know. There are just a lot of hard-headed people around here that hear, we're going to bring back coal, and they're all for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENDEREV: So Brad thinks that the best thing that he can do at this point is to leave - this job, this county, the whole thing. But he says he can't leave yet.

PENNINGTON: I can't pack up and move on a minimum-wage job. It has to be a worthwhile job, something that can make it to where I can afford to leave, is basically all I'm waiting for.

BENDEREV: That wait, which he originally figured might be just six months working at the hotel, has now lasted two years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Brad is on to something when he talks about coal. Because like I said at the beginning, confidence in Trump is just part of why coal prices have been going up and people's lives have been changing. The main reason is something not a lot of people are talking about, the global market. Like, supply and demand. Actually, demand in China and supply in Australia. That's what makes these short-term changes happen. But what does the long-term look like? That's coming up in our next episodes. Plus, Brad surprises us, Kyle makes some progress and Gary gets some news.

BENDEREV: Are there days like this that happen where you feel like, I'm not sure if we're going to make it?

DOTSON: Well, sure. All the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: These episodes were recorded and written by Chris Benderev and me. They were produced by Chris and by Lisa Pollak, with help from Noor Wazwaz. They were edited by Lisa and mixed by Chris. We also had editing help from Neal Carruth, Tom Dreisbach, Neva Grant, Rebecca Hersher, Jennifer Ludden and Mark Memmott. Fact checking is by Greta Pittenger. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans, other original music by Ramtin Arablouei. You can see images from the coal counties and of the people in these stories on our website, npr.org.

Huge thanks to Ruth Sherlock, Joe Streit (ph), Benny Becker, Taylor Kuykendall, Ralph Dunlop (ph), Rema Keen, Susan Stansel (ph), Corita Brown (ph), Tony Oppegard, Elizabeth Catte, Chris Dillow (ph), Tony Matney (ph), Ginny McLanahan (ph), Tom McLaughlin (ph), Kate Larkin (ph), Elizabeth Barrett (ph) and Roger May. EMBEDDED is executive produced by Anya Grundmann, Chris Turpin and me. We are back next week with more coal stories. Subscribe to this podcast. Leave a review. Hit us up on Twitter @NPREmbedded. That's it. I'm Kelly McEvers. Thanks.

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