The coal industry is changing, with machines doing work once done by miners and different energy sources gaining ground. But this shift is about more than economics; it’s about people, too. A forthcoming report from the Kleinman Center offers a range of strategies to help revitalize Pennsylvania’s coal communities in the medium- to long-term.

By Christina Simeone, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy

From Penn’s campus in bustling Philadelphia, it may be hard to comprehend that Pennsylvania is embroiled in a crisis concerning coal miners and coal-dependent communities.

The mental-health situation in Appalachia looked troubling a decade ago. A 2008 report from the University of Chicago, commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission, found a higher prevalence of mental-health disorders—such as serious psychological distress and major depressive disorder—in Appalachia compared to the rest of the nation. These mental-health diagnoses were independent from substance abuse and particularly acute in economically distressed areas.

A decade later, the situation does not seem to have improved. In 2017, the University of Chicago released a follow-up report commissioned by the Appalachian Region Commission examining trends with three “diseases of despair” in Appalachia: substance abuse (alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs), suicide, and liver cirrhosis (alcoholic liver disease). The study found the combined mortality rate from diseases of despair was 37 percent higher in the Appalachian U.S. compared to non-Appalachian U.S. Most notably, the 25- to 44-year-old age group in the Appalachian U.S. had a 70 percent higher mortality rate from diseases of despair compared to non-Appalachian U.S. The report notes this has significant implications for economic development, as individuals in their prime working years are most heavily impacted by these diseases.

It may or may not be coincidence that Pennsylvania’s opioid epidemic is affecting a similar demographic. According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania saw a 37 percent increase in drug overdoses from 2015 to 2016. In 2016, approximately 13 people per day died of drug overdoses, the majority of which were opioid related (85 percent), white (77 percent), male (70 percent), with the most-impacted age group being 25 to 34 years old. On top of this, on a population-adjusted basis, many rural counties home to distressed coal communities had some of the highest drug-related death rates in the state.

These health-related outcomes are troubling, and while not claiming causality, these outcomes are perhaps intuitively not surprising after considering the recent history and lack of opportunities available in many of these rural coal towns and communities.

Pennsylvania’s coal mining history began in the 1700s, with Appalachian coal being used to warm homes, fuel power plants, and make the steel that built the industrial revolution. Bustling towns grew around coal mines across rural Pennsylvania to house, feed, and entertain miners and their families. But today, many of these same coal communities are in economic distress, with profoundly negative psychological and health outcomes for the most impacted individuals.

The Kleinman Center for Energy Policy performed research for the Pennsylvania Small Business Development Center’s federal grant exploring strategies to assist individuals and businesses impacted by changes in the state’s coal economy.

Although the research focused on energy market dynamics, demographic changes in the state, and economic development strategies, the most gripping insights came from stakeholders within Pennsylvania’s coal communities who conveyed the human experience of the coal downturn.

To understand the human experience, one has to first understand the downturn itself. In the early days of coal mining, the industry relied on human laborers. But for decades now, machines have more quickly and efficiently been doing the work of miners, resulting in coal production increasing and employment decreasing. This long-term trend of declining coal mining employment contributed to economic stress in coal mining towns.

Other factors served to compound this stress, such as reduced demand for coal from the domestic steel industry, increased regulation of coal as scientists learned more about the health and environmental impacts of coal extraction and combustion, and increased competition from lower-priced coal extracted from other areas of the nation.

However, the rapid rise of cheap and abundant natural gas—extracted by machines from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale deposits—has dealt a swift and devastating blow. Within just a decade (between 2005 and 2014), coal-fired power plants ceded almost 20 percent market share in the regional power market to gas-fired generation, and coal mining in Appalachia declined by 45 percent, more than twice the national decrease of 21 percent.

Distressed coal communities in Pennsylvania generally share many common demographic characteristics, including high unemployment, aging populations, deteriorating or insufficient infrastructure, and educational attainment levels that are lower than state and national averages. As people born, raised, and educated in these communities move out, new, educated populations generally do not move in, leading to a “brain drain” of educated workers. These and other factors make it difficult to attract new business into these communities.

There are efforts underway to assist distressed coal communities and individuals, but it’s too soon to determine their efficacy. And numerous barriers exist. Many individuals can’t afford to relocate, because plummeting property values—stemming from community distress (i.e., high unemployment, eroding tax base, and deteriorating infrastructure)—have caused them to be underwater on their mortgages. Some workers can’t take advantage of retraining opportunities because they can’t financially support their families during the education period. And, some employers say there are jobs, but they can’t find qualified people who can pass a drug test.

And although coal mining exposes workers to inhospitable working conditions, negative respiratory health effects, and even risk of fatality, mining jobs may be some of the best around (when available), paying a $30,000 wage premium to the average Pennsylvania industrial wage. Plus, there is a rich and important cultural and generational connection to coal in these areas, making it difficult for many to imagine the potential for a drastically different future.

The Kleinman Center’s forthcoming report, to be published later this month, focuses on a range of strategies to help revitalize Pennsylvania’s coal communities in the medium- to long-term. There is much work still to be done, to address the immediate needs of these people and places, and to ultimately stem the crisis occurring within our Commonwealth. (Click here to read an executive summary of the Kleinman Center’s findings.)

Christina Simeone is the director of policy and external affairs for The Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.