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In Pa. coal country, Trump is king

WAYNESBURG, Pa. - Jim Popielarcheck's dad was a coal miner for 40 years, and he followed the old man underground. In turn, when it was time, his son J.W. descended into the earth.

Supporters wait for Donald Trump, Jr. to speak during the grand-opening of a Trump campaign headquarters September 14, 2016 near Canonsburg, in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Supporters wait for Donald Trump, Jr. to speak during the grand-opening of a Trump campaign headquarters September 14, 2016 near Canonsburg, in southwestern Pennsylvania.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

WAYNESBURG, Pa. - Jim Popielarcheck's dad was a coal miner for 40 years, and he followed the old man underground. In turn, when it was time, his son J.W. descended into the earth.

That's been the story for generations in Greene County, a piece of Appalachia in the farthest southwest corner of Pennsylvania, one of the biggest coal-producing counties in the nation, a point of blue-collar pride.

But in a place where houses and settlements cling to the sides of mountains, mist rising from the hollers, the way of life coal has provided, and even the promise of America itself, can feel precarious here in the final weeks before the nation elects a new president.

The coal industry is shrinking, under pressure from regulations pushed by the Obama administration to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, competition from cheap natural gas, and reduced demand for coal from China.

And the shift is creating a sharp political fault line between Democrat Hillary Clinton, who wants to speed the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner-burning energy, and Republican Donald Trump, who vows to increase coal production as part of an "all of the above" energy strategy.

"This country is in trouble," said Popielarcheck, 56, a registered Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but switched to Mitt Romney in 2012 after becoming convinced the president had declared war on coal. "Trump says, 'Don't worry, coal miners, I'm coming.' Voting for that or voting for somebody who wants to close me down is not a choice."

Edge for Trump

Greene County - and more broadly, southwestern Pennsylvania - matters in the race for the state's 20 electoral votes. The county is overwhelmingly white and has a lower percentage of college graduates than the state as a whole, demographics that have been favorable to Trump in polling. It has gone for the Republican candidate in the last four presidential elections, though Democrats have carried the state since 1992.

Trump needs strong turnout and support in the region and in other rural areas of the state to overcome Clinton's advantage in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

"This is going to be the area that makes Trump president or breaks him," said Joseph DiSarro, political science professor at nearby Washington and Jefferson College.

Greene County Commission Chairman Blair Zimmerman, a Democrat, figures that Trump has an edge based on his promise to "bring back coal," which he thinks is unrealistic.

"I can say that General Motors is going to move to Greene County and put 3,000 jobs here," said Zimmerman, a retired coal miner. "You can say whatever you want, but that doesn't mean it's real. But people buy into it. They're drinking the Kool-Aid. That's what I think."

'Out of business'

Last November, 230 union miners lost their jobs when Alpha Energy closed the Emerald mine just outside Waynesburg. In the last five years, more than 30,000 coal jobs have disappeared across the nation, and the share of U.S. electricity generated by burning coal has dropped from 45 percent to 31 percent.

Clinton gave exactly the wrong answer when asked during a March CNN town hall from Columbus, Ohio, why working-class Appalachian whites who often vote Republican should back her instead.

"I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean, renewable energy as the key into coal country, because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," she said.

The context was her promise of a $30 billion program to retrain miners and help their communities adjust, but most people remember the "out of business" part.

"We're going to put the coal miners back to work," Trump said in a spring rally in West Virginia, and he has pounded that message ever since in southwestern Pennsylvania and everywhere else that the fuel is mined. "Trump Digs Coal," say the buttons and placards distributed by his campaign.

And fossil-fuels companies have amplified the message. Secure Energy for America, a nonpartisan industry association, has worked to mobilize workers in the natural gas and coal fields in important counties in southwest Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio, and Virginia with information sessions and voter-registration drives.

The United Mine Workers, still a strong cultural and political force in coal country, does not plan to endorse in the presidential race, though it has traditionally aligned with Democrats. The union backed Obama in 2008 but was neutral in 2012.

While Trump signs were abundant in Greene County, Clinton signs numbered in the single digits.

'Most important election'

"This is the most important election coal has ever had," said J.W. Popielarcheck, 27, who now works with his father at the Bailey Complex in Wind Ridge, a nonunion mine owned by Consol Energy. He had worked for the Emerald Mine, switching six months before it closed.

In early August, Jim Popielarcheck said he got 90 signatures from friends and family pledging to vote for Trump to stand up for the energy industry.

"I like what Trump stands for," he said. "He's not a politician. He says whatever he has to say, whether you like it or not, and there are no special interests putting him in their back pocket. He speaks his own mind."

J.W. Popielarcheck, who has spent nine years underground, said he has met people with bachelor's degrees working in the mines because it pays better than most jobs requiring the academic credential.

With overtime, a senior coal miner can make six figures. It's a good life, and coal forms the foundation of Greene County's prosperity. Each coal miner supports 18 jobs with his spending, Jim Popielarcheck said, citing industry estimates.

"I lose my job, my wife is not going to go next door to get her nails and hair done," he said. "I'm not going to go into town to get new $100 tires for my truck. I'll go to a junkyard and spend $5 on the best I can find." There will be less spending at the Sheetz for gas and sandwiches with fewer miners filling lunch buckets. And so on.

Already shock waves are being felt in the county from Emerald's closing. Jim Popielarcheck said his son-in-law, a heavy-equipment operator, plans to move to North Carolina to find work and send for his family when he is established.

It's more than economics for J.W. Popielarcheck. He doesn't trust Clinton and thinks her use of a private email server as secretary of state, which transmitted classified information, is disqualifying.

"Hillary seems like somebody who thinks the rules are for the little people, not her. She's trash," he said. "Damn right, she should be in jail."

'Best we can do'

Many Greene County voters don't seem all that excited about the choice before them, even if they have strong opinions on the issues, County Commissioner Zimmerman said. They're preparing to vote against someone, out of duty rather than a sense of uplift.

"The thing I hear the most on the street, from Democrats and Republicans: This is the best we can do for a presidential election in a country with, what, 300 million people?" Zimmerman said. "People don't trust Hillary - she's a liar. Donald Trump makes fun of disabled people. He's a 'successful businessman.' Right. Thanks to us. How many times has he filed for bankruptcy?"

On balance, he prefers Hillary. She is smart, he said, has experience and some details to her policy proposals.

"Right now, I think people are sick of it, ready for it just to be over," said State Rep. Pam Snyder, a Democrat, speaking of the presidential race. She is running for her third term, stressing her independence on her campaign website and literature: "100 percent pro-life" and a member of the National Rifle Association.

"Greene County Democrats are leaps and bounds different than Philadelphia Democrats," Snyder said. She focuses on local issues such as fighting opioid addiction and getting broadband internet access for the county.

Snyder does not bring up her party's nominee, and when asked her opinion, tells people to make up their own minds, she said.

Republican Mark Fischer, a Waynesburg businessman and former chairman of the county GOP, said he believes Trump's success stems from a sense among hardworking people that they've been abandoned by powerful institutions, such as unions and government.

"What Trump provides is he's not somebody people know already. If you will, he's more of a rebel than what Hillary is," Fischer, 54, said. "They think he's going to blow stuff up. The liberal elites and the conservative establishment - those 'in the know' - don't realize how p-ed off people are."

Of Trump, Fischer said: "You never know what he's going to say, but people are tired of knowing what a politician is going to say."

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald