Kentucky produced 19,457,152 tons of coal in the first three months of this year, compared with 19,189,890 tons in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to the report released in May by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. On a year-over-year basis, however, production in the most recent quarter was down from 20,617,040 tons in the first quarter of 2013.
Continuing were several trends that have emerged in recent years. In addition to job losses, mines in western Kentucky, part of the high-sulfur Illinois Basin, widened the production gap over their Central Appalachian counterparts in eastern Kentucky.
The first quarter of 2013 represented the first time in memory that western Kentucky turned out more coal than eastern Kentucky. In Q1 2014, western Kentucky produced 10,524,926 tons, a 5.9% increase over the fourth quarter, while eastern Kentucky’s output was 8,932,226 tons, a 3.5% decrease over the fourth quarter.
In Q1, the vast majority of western Kentucky’s production, 9,166,937 tons, or 87%, was from underground mines, with only 1,357,989, or 13%, from surface operations.
In eastern Kentucky, production was split almost evenly between underground and surface. Some 4,657,635 tons, or 52%, came from underground mines while 4,274,591 tons, or 48%, were from surface mines.
Overall statewide, coal production at underground mines increased by 6.2%, to 13,824,572 tons in the first quarter while surface mine production decreased by 8.8% to 5,632,580 tons.
Western Kentucky’s Union County, the home of Alliance Resource Partners’ large River View underground thermal coal mine near the Ohio River, was the top coal-producing county in the Commonwealth in Q1, extracting 3,488,198 tons of the black mineral for a 9.4% increase. Next came traditional eastern Kentucky coal powerhouse Pike County with 2,471,132 tons, a 4.6% rise from the fourth quarter.
In fact, all but a handful of coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky posted production declines in the first quarter. In addition to Pike, counties that showed an increase were Harlan, Knott, Knox and Clay.
In western Kentucky, Hopkins, Ohio and Webster counties joined Union with increases while Muhlenberg and Daviess showed decreases.
Kentucky mines reduced on-site employment by 235 workers, or 2%, during the first quarter to an estimated 11,650 miners. Employment dropped by 201 employees in eastern Kentucky to 7,235 and fell by 34 employees to 4,415 in western Kentucky.
Individually, Pike County still boasted the most mining jobs —1,875 — in Q1, followed by Union County with 1,325 jobs. Next came Perry County, 1,112 jobs; and Harlan County, 1,010 jobs.
Western Kentucky has gradually gained more than 1,400 mining jobs since 2007, the report said. Over the same period, though, mining jobs in eastern Kentucky have plummeted by almost half, from 13,449 seven years ago.