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Coal miners from various companies rally against Hillary Clinton across from Jackie O's on Stimson Avenue on May 3, 2016. (FILE)

Trump needs to come through on bringing coal jobs back to Appalachia

A stop in Abingdon, Virginia, last August typified Donald Trump's visits to Appalachia during the 2016 election. In front of a group of supporters holding signs that stated "Trump Digs Coal," the then-candidate promised he could bring back mining jobs to the region.

"I'm not a neutral for the miners ... I'm going to be an unbelievable positive, but this is the last shot," Trump said during his speech. "The mines will be gone if (Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton) gets elected."

Now, Trump must deliver on a promise that helped him dominate the region on Election Day. He won every county in West Virginia, 118 of 120 counties in Kentucky, 92 of 95 counties in Tennessee, every county in western Pennsylvania except Allegheny (home to Pittsburgh) and every single Appalachian county in Ohio except Athens and Mahoning County.

"I don't think there's any question that a majority of our members voted for President Trump," Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of American, said. "They supported him on his promise to put miners back to work and revitalize their communities."

Trump's first step was to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations. For Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association, that was a positive first step. 

"He repealed the Clean Power Plan and ended the Stream Protection rule, which were two of the biggest problems facing our industry," Palich said. "We've yet to see what the results are but we're in a much better position than we were six months ago."

Palich said over 60 percent of the state's power comes from coal, and he believed that number could rise under Trump.

"I think the Trump administration is going to put the correct environment in place to compete," he added.

But competition has been a double-edged sword for the coal industry, and regulation has not been the main obstacle for industry growth.

Currently, natural gas is cheaper than coal, which has decreased the demand for coal. Smith said there was not much Trump could do about natural gas.

"It's basically in the hands of the market," Smith said. "It's our hope that he'll (deliver on his promises) going forward, but there's a lot of work to do, and we haven't seen any immediate things happening on that."

He added that a rebound in the world economy would also help, since it would lead to more steel production, a process that requires metallurgical coal. But Smith said that kind of coal was not mined in the Ohio Valley.

There is some skepticism amongst local Republicans as to whether Trump can bring back coal jobs. Athens County Republican Party Chairman Pete Couladis believed the removal of environmental regulations would help the industry, but feels times have changed.

"It's never going to come back to where it was, because people have moved on to other sources of energy," he said. "The economy changes. It's like the horse and buggy: When cars came out, the horse and buggy industry went down."

Palich also felt that coal would not return to its early 20th century heyday, but said any amount of job creation would be a success.

"I don't think he's saying we'll have 1950s employment," he said. "But if we can create a new normal, if we can create one coal job in Ohio, then we've saved one family."


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