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Kentucky loses 200 coal jobs in second quarter

Coal jobs in Kentucky fell by 200 in the second quarter of 2017 as the state continues to feel the impact of the coal industry's decline.

According to data from the state government, the average number of jobs in the coal industry in the second quarter of 2017 was 6,364, compared to the 6,564 in the first quarter, a 3% decrease. The recent quarter's total was also a drop from the 6,550 jobs reported in the second quarter of 2016 and just over a third of the 18,191 jobs reported in the second quarter of 2011.

While the overall number of jobs in the state dropped, the fortunes of individual counties differed. Pike County saw the biggest loss, down 170 jobs in the second quarter, while Harlan County added 42 jobs the largest increase in the state sequentially.

These numbers contrast with the job numbers across the country and with President Donald Trump's promise of putting miners "back to work." An S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis published Aug. 2 found that coal mining employment across the U.S. increased by 0.5% in the second quarter of 2017 compared to the first quarter.

The state might see an uptick in jobs with the planned reopening of Southern Coal Corp.'s Beech Creek Coal affiliate in eastern Kentucky. Beech Creek had planned to hire about 100 workers and had already begun as of June.

Production in Kentucky fell to about 10.4 million tons in the second quarter, a drop from the 11.5 million-ton output in the previous quarter but a bump from the 10 million tons produced in the second quarter of 2016. In the 2011 second quarter, the state produced about 27.2 million tons.

Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the decline has slowed significantly compared to the declines over the last eight years.

"I'm not out here beating the drum saying this is going to recover in 180 days," he said, adding that he prefers to refer to a stabilization rather than a recovery.

The improvement in jobs and production in other states has been fueled mostly by a metallurgical market that Kentucky essentially does not have, according to White. "We understand that the bounce-back that we will see in Kentucky will be much lower than we see in some other states such as West Virginia."

He added that Kentucky is not stuck in the Industrial Revolution, where mining was undertaken by miners with pickaxes and shovels, and that during the difficult times of the last few years, coal has had to become increasingly efficient and automated in order to compete.