WAYNESBURG, Pa. — Coal is still king in Greene County. But even here, about 25 miles from Pennsylania’s far southwest corner, it can’t wear the crown forever.
About 17,000 people are employed directly and indirectly by what’s known as bituminous coal in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, bringing billions of dollars to the economy. In 2019, about 4,000 people worked mining this softer, more prevalent coal found in mines west of the Susquehanna River, compared with the anthracite found in Northeastern Pennsylvania. More than half of those jobs are in Greene County, where coal accounts for about one-third of the tax income.
“The coal industry has driven the last 110 years of our economy,” said Mike Belding, a Republican who chairs the Greene County Board of Commissioners. “If there were no further restrictions, I think we could operate for another 30 years, another generation of coal miners.”
But despite President Donald Trump’s declaration during a rally in Johnstown last week that his policies are “putting our great coal miners back to work,” even people here see an industry in its coda, regardless of whether Trump or Joe Biden wins next month.
Coal employment hasn’t actually rebounded under Trump. In Pennsylvania, the number of bituminous miners has dropped from 4,559 in 2017 to 3,979 in 2019. Nationwide, there are 6,400 fewer miners today than when Trump took office.
As Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said of Trump: “He hasn’t done anything to help, necessarily, but he also hasn’t done anything to hurt us.”
That doesn’t mean support for Trump is on the wane here. The coal alliance endorsed Trump.
Greene County, once solidly blue, has steadily lost registered Democrats, although many of those voters had already been backing Republicans for years. In November of 2016, Democrats outnumbered Republicans about 12,400 to 8,080. As of late September, there were 10,100 Republicans to 9,900 Democrats.
“For 45 years, the staunch union, blue-collar Democrat stayed here, and kids signed up to be Democrats because their grandfathers were and they worked in the mine," Belding said, pointing to a shift that echoed across Southwestern and Northeastern Pennsylvania as longtime Democrats with union ties broke for Trump.
The United Mine Workers represents one-third of the 30,000 hourly coal miners in the country, including 600 in Greene County. The UMW is not endorsing a candidate this year, though Biden and Trump both sought their support. The union’s last endorsement was Barack Obama in 2008.
Coal runs deep in Pennsylvania, below old barns, graves, and wind turbines. Family trees remain rooted in the sooty black seams their ancestors mined. East of the Susquehanna River, in northeastern Pennsylvania, miners dug for anthracite coal, the harder, rarer product, almost luminous black in the light. Today, the heyday of the anthracite industry is mostly a memory. The “Black Diamonds” play youth football on fall weekends in Ashland. Statues of miners stand in town squares, and murals recall when anthracite was mined and “coal was king.”
Back in 1914, when almost 200,000 Pennsylvanians worked the anthracite, 600 people died in the mines.
In Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal industry, employment dropped from 837 jobs in 2017 to 735 in 2018, before rebounding to 965 in 2019.
Biden, who was in born in the anthracite region in Scranton, hasn’t made the same mistake as Hillary Clinton, who famously said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." Clinton later said that was the comment she most regretted from her 2016 campaign, when her razor-thin loss in Pennsylvania helped send Trump to the White House.
“You talk bad about guns and coal and you’re done,” said Blair Zimmerman, a retired mine worker and Democratic commissioner in Greene County. “I don’t think Trump’s a smart man, but he said the right stuff and people here drank the Kool-Aid.”
Clinton had her own Scranton roots. Her English ancestors were coal miners. Melissa Meade, a communications professor at Villanova University who studied Pennsylvania’s anthracite region for a decade, said Clinton’s 2016 remark was seen as a deep insult to a difficult, dangerous, and deeply exploited profession that helped build the United States.
“In the case of coal, there’s so much pride and there’s so much pain,” Meade said.
Some miners suspect Biden shares Clinton’s sentiments and policies but knows better than to say so aloud. Asked about the future of coal under a Biden administration, the campaign pointed to his website, where his platform includes all clean electricity by 2035.
“Each of these communities are necessary," Biden’s campaign says of coal regions. “We can’t write them off or act like they don’t matter.”
During the Sept. 29 presidential debate, Biden said: “Nobody’s going to build another coal-fired power plant in America.” He hasn’t proposed a ban on coal-fired plants. But 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants across the country are sitting idle as the economy turns more and more to natural gas, according to the New York Times.
Phil Smith, the communications director for the United Mine Workers, said that as long as the market prices for natural gas remain low, demand for coal will continue to drop.
“That’s going to be true no matter who is elected,” he said.
Trump campaign spokesperson Courtney Parella said that Biden and Obama “spent years fighting a war on coal” and that Trump removed “burdensome restrictions” on miners in Pennsylvania.
As Election Day nears and Pennsylvania is increasingly seen as the state likely to determine the winner, Trump has made the same proclamations about resurrecting the coal industry that he did four years ago, when signs scattered throughout coal regions said “Make Coal Great Again” and “Trump Digs Coal.”
One retired miner here said Biden would pursue the Green New Deal, a proposal by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and others for fighting climate change — never mind Biden’s frequent statements that he doesn’t support the framework that liberals tout and conservatives fear.
“Biden and Harris can say whatever they want, but it’s the legislators and Congress that are going to enact the policies and regulations and they’re going to sign off on them,” said Greg Chrash, 65.
On Tuesday, Moody’s investor service said coal producers will see a decline in demand under Trump or Biden but decline would be “accelerated” if the former vice president won.
On a weekday afternoon last month, bulldozers pushed piles of bituminous coal onto a conveyor at the Cumberland mine in Greene County, which employs 700. The owners of the mine have announced that it’s for sale and some believe talk of 30 years of good coal left underneath “30 years bituminous reserves" in Greene County should come with an asterisk.
“The question is whether those reserves will be profitable for 30 years,” said Veronic Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that works in communities affected by the coal industry. “The second these companies operating in our community no longer make a profit, they will bail.”
Coptis said the mine needs $60 million in improvements. “From our perspective, that’s a shutdown notice,” she said.
Contura Energy, which owns the mine, did not return requests for comment.
Elsewhere in Greene County, a power station in Monongahela Township closed in 2013, after its owners opted not spend the $245 million needed to retrofit its coal-burning generators to make them compliant with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.
“We lost several hundred workers because they couldn’t meet the EPA standards,” Belding said. “Nothing has replaced that yet.
“We need a new industry,” he added. “We can no longer rely on the extraction of coal and natural gas.”
But Belding said solar and wind energy aren’t the replacement Greene County needs.
For now, coal reigns.
Quinn Cromyak, of New Philadelphia, in Schuylkill County — about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia — works as a heavy-equipment operator for a local mining operation. A 2018 high school graduate, Cromyak, 22, has a backup plan in case decades of mining don’t pan out. “I am looking into law enforcement classes,” he said.
Cromyak also thinks anthracite mining, though much smaller, will stick around longer than bituminous mining because it’s so rare. His grandfather, father, and uncle all mined anthracite coal, but it’s unclear how many generations will follow. In 2018, 739 people mined anthracite, down from 837 the year before.
He thinks he’ll have a job — for a while at least.
“The election will not affect my immediate future no matter who gets in,” he said. “A society solely running on green energy and renewable resources is impossible. We do not have the technology even today to do this, nor will we in November.”