What's a coal miner to do when they're laid off, leaving them without much-needed insurance or their pension? What if it happens to the whole community at the same time?
"We knew it was coming, we just didn't know how hard it was gonna be. We're losin' everything," Regina Lilly, wife of a West Virginia coal miner who was laid off after their child was born, said in a new National Geographic documentary about coal mining.
The documentary, called "From the Ashes," explores the past, present, and future of coal mining, and is currently free on YouTube.
When mining companies move to new locations with cheaper coal, local residents like Lilly believe the coal companies "failed" them.
In one example portrayed in the documentary, Alpha Natural Resources sent letters to 100 workers about upcoming layoffs. These "WARN notices" are generally sent to workers two months before a round of layoffs, giving them time to find new jobs. However, some coal workers still face unexpected layoffs, like Lilly's husband Cecil, who didn't know he was laid off until he went into work.
"It's just heartbreaking now that they closed down they take their workers' pensions, they take their retirements, their savings, anything they had in the company. They file bankruptcy...As long as they got their money in their pocket they don't care," said Lilly.
In the documentary, Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and a West Virginia resident, described the aftermath of a mine layoff as a "life and death struggle" for local communities. She described the scene as one she's seen time and again, where coal companies "want to shed their obligations to workers, that includes pensions and healthcare commitments."
When coal mining jobs go, entire communities lose their livelihoods, making it hard to bounce back. Hitt alleged that this is now happening on an "unprecedented scale."
After "From the Ashes" came out, John Oliver dedicated an episodeof his show "Last Week Tonight" to exposing the corruption in the coal industry, based partially on the documentary.
In a tale familiar to coal communities, Oliver highlighted the story of when Alpha Natural Resources filed for bankruptcy two years ago. CEO Kevin Crutchfield appeared on television with tears in his eyes talking about how he felt for his coal workers. However, Oliver found court documents stating Alpha later asked its bankruptcy trustee if the coal company could save $3 million by cutting health and life insurance benefits of around 1,200 non-union retirees — so that the company could then pay $11.9 million in bonuses to fifteen top executives, including Crutchfield.
Coal miners overwhelmingly supported President Trump in the 2016 election. Trump appealed to the loss of coal jobs in Appalachia, and blamed the loss on environmental regulations — but statistics show natural gas is pricing coal out of the market, not regulations.
In 2010, about 45% of the electricity in the US came from coal, with 24% from natural gas and 31% coming from other sources. As of 2016 the stats were 30% coal, 34% natural gas, and 36% other,according to the US Energy and Information Administration.
"From the Ashes" will be available free on YouTube until July 3rd.
Watch the full From the Ashes documentary free below: