Overall, the Bluegrass state produced 19.94 million tons of coal in the July-September period, up by about 60,000 tons or 0.3% from the second quarter and more than 400,000 tons from the first three months of this year. In fact, output in the latest period was the highest since the third quarter of 2013.
Coal production at Kentucky surface mines increased by a marginal 0.9% to 6.6 million tons in the third quarter of 2014, accounting for 33% of the state’s output. During the quarter, underground mines in the state produced 13.3 million tons, virtually unchanged from the second quarter of 2014. Underground mining represented 67% of total production.
For years, production in eastern Kentucky far outstripped that in the western part of the state. That changed in the first quarter of 2013 when western Kentucky finally edged out its eastern counterpart. A back and forth then ensued with eastern Kentucky reversing several quarters of decline by producing 10.2 million tons in the second quarter of 2014 and again seizing the top spot.
But its ascendancy proved short-lived. During the third quarter, eastern Kentucky production dropped to 9.8 million tons, or a 4.3% decline. Western Kentucky saw production rise to 10.1 million tons, or a 5.2% increase.
The picture was not altogether bleak for eastern Kentucky, however, as several traditional coal-producing counties experienced an uptick in production in the third quarter. They included Pike County, for decades the mountainous region’s coal leader, as well as Martin County, Bell County, Leslie County and Magoffin County.
Other eastern Kentucky counties such as Letcher and Knox recorded sharp declines, 29% and 33.6%, respectively.
Western Kentucky production was paced by a 15.7% increase in Union County, the home of Alliance Resource Partners’ large River View underground thermal coal mine near Uniontown, and aided by the reopening of Patriot Coal Co.’s Highland No. 9 deep mine near Waverly, which was temporarily idled earlier this year.
In addition to Union County, other western Kentucky counties to see increases in the third quarter included Hopkins, Muhlenberg and McLean. McLean, in fact, had a whopping 259.4% increase, mainly because of the start of production at Rhino Resource Partners’ new Pennyrile underground mine, also known as Riveredge.
The western Kentucky counties of Ohio, Webster and Daviess counties, however, produced less coal in the third quarter.
Even with a modest statewide increase in production, total coal mine employment continued to tumble by 187 employees, or 1.6% during the quarter. There were 7,229 miners in eastern Kentucky, a 2.8% decrease, while mine employment in western Kentucky ticked upward by 18 people to 4,441.
Despite the lower production in eastern Kentucky, Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett still saw a silver lining in the report. “I think we’ve seen four quarters now of relatively steady production” in eastern Kentucky, he said. “We’re not dealing with the precipitous drop in 2012 and 2013. It’s not good news, but it’s not bad news either.”
Bissett’s bigger concern is what happens in the months ahead. He’s eager to see the state agency’s first quarter 2015 report. “There is talk of a very, very cold winter, which is good news for coal.”