Ohio Coal Industry Shrinks

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Sign marks entrance to Buckingham coal mine in Corning, Ohio. One of two mines still operating in Perry County, southeast of Columbus.
Sign marks entrance to Buckingham coal mine in Corning, Ohio. One of two mines still operating in Perry County, southeast of Columbus.

Ohio’s coal industry suffered another setback when Murray Energy last month announced it would close its mine in Brilliant – on the Ohio River. Coal is still a one-billion dollar industry in Ohio, but coal consumption has fallen to a 20-year low. Regulation and competition are to blame.

The nearest coal mines to Columbus are about 60 miles to the southeast in Perry County. A gently rolling landscape around the village of New Lexington hides the mineral riches deep beneath the surface. Coal has been mined in the area since the late 1880′s.

John Ulmer has lived all his life in Perry County and now heads a business group. He remembers the boom years.

“Also the southern part of the county back years ago with the coal and oil boom both, they were tremendously thriving communities down in the southern part of the county,” says Ulmer.

But, the Great Recession, tighter environmental regulations and competiton from cheap natural gas has crimped the market for coal. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources counts 142 coal mines in Ohio but only about half of them are producing coal.

70 year old retired miner Charles Rose says he’s not surprised.

“We still have a few coal mines but they seem to be petering out, you know what I mean,” says Rose.

Rose can look out his window and watch operations at the Oxford Coal surface mine in eastern Perry County. He spent most of his life either mining coal or hauling it in large bucket trucks. He recently sold his property to the mine company and moved with his wife to Florida. He likens the sale of his home to the coal company as an echo of the past when coal operators owned the company store and most of the housing surrounding a mine. He says the house won’t be demolished until the company needs the coal underneath it.

“Of course the coal company they’re going to rent it to somebody else,” Rose says. “Reminds you of the old days doesn’t it? Send him to the store to buy a pair of shoes.” (slight laughter)

Rose worked twenty years in a union mine, where he made what he calls a ‘wonderful living.’ But, he doubts younger miners will do as well as automation and demand from utilities and big factories wanes.

“I don’t think it looks very good for the coal miners, no. I think they’re weeding us out,” says Rose.

Coal has not totally disappeared. Two Perry County coal mines employ several hundred workers. New Lexington village council member Trent Thompson says the area’s economy is much less dependent on coal now than it was decades ago. The major employers in the county are local government, including schools, and some small manufacturers. But without the mines, Thompson says a growing number of people have to leave town to find work.

“It has become a bedroom community. The people who live here have to find employment elsewhere,” says Thompson.

Thompson sees his Perry county neighbors are driving to Lancaster and Zanesville. Some commute even further to Columbus.

As for the coal still being mined in Perry County, that’s traveling further too. More of it is being exported overseas.

Tom Borgerding
WOSU News

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