Local Initiatives

Ky. Co-ops Help Struggling Coal Miners

By Victoria A. Rocha | ECT Staff Writer Published: August 5th, 2014

When Chris Smith lost his job at a coal mine in Hazard, Ky., his fortunes improved.

Jackson EC is helping former coal miner Chris Smith (pictured at left with daughter, Dontay) start a new career with a lineman training scholarship. Also pictured: JEC officials Phil Thompson and Carol Wright.  (Photo By: Karen Combs)

Jackson EC is helping former coal miner Chris Smith (pictured at left with daughter, Dontay) start a new career with a lineman training scholarship. Also pictured: JEC officials Phil Thompson and Carol Wright. (Photo By: Karen Combs)

A member of Jackson Energy Co-op with lifelong dreams of climbing power poles, Smith took a chance and applied for a $3,500 lineman training scholarship at the McKee, Ky., co-op. He got it.

“I’m not the type of lucky person to win that stuff,” said Smith, who’s in the beginning weeks of lineman training school at Somerset Community College. “But I thought, ‘I’m going to give it a shot.’”

Smith is an example of how Kentucky electric co-ops are helping coal miners, beset by high unemployment and job scarcity, start anew with lineman training scholarships and other types of assistance. Another co-op, South Kentucky RECC in Somerset, has launched a T-shirt fundraiser for a similar purpose.

“He’s our first nontraditional recipient. He really impressed our panel,” said Karen Combs, director of public relations at JEC.

Like Smith, many members of the co-op have fallen on hard times. “We’ve had an uptick [in delayed payments] among members who haven’t had difficulty in the past paying their bills,” said Combs, noting that the co-op tries to work out payment arrangements. “In addition to losing mining jobs, we have had several small manufacturers close and do layoffs.”

Although South Kentucky RECC is located farther west, where coal jobs have risen modestly, it still wants to help its stricken brethren. Proceeds from sales of the safety-green T-shirts, will fund scholarships through Somerset Community College. The sales end Aug. 29.

“Depending on the total amount that we manage to raise, the money may also be used to help pay the electric bills of unemployed mine workers who are co-op members in the eastern part of the state,” said Joy Bullock, corporate communications coordinator at the Somerset-based co-op.

McKee is in eastern Kentucky, where mine closures and layoffs are the highest because of economic and regulatory pressures. Jobs at coal mines and facilities in the region have plunged by about half—more than 7,000 jobs—in the past 2-1/2 years, according to figures supplied by Economic Modeling Specialists International, a private firm.

“Further estimates project the region having only 6,947 mining jobs by 2020, leading to an overall 48.8 percent decline in coal jobs in 10 years,” said Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, which serves out-of-work coal miners.

Eastern Kentucky’s bleak economic landscape is the focus of “The People at the End of the Lines,” a 12-minute video produced by East Kentucky Power Cooperative. The film aims to “make policymakers and regulators aware that proposed federal greenhouse gas regulations could affect people who are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Nick Comer, external affairs manager at the Winchester-based G&T.

It’s a situation that Chris Smith is striving mightily to overcome. When he finishes the college’s eight-month training program, he wants to work at Jackson Energy.

“I have two young ones at home and I need a stable job,” said Smith. “My dream has always been to work at Jackson Energy, because they are all just good people and I’ve never met anyone who’s unhappy working there. I might have to go elsewhere at first, but I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.”

Want to order a T-shirt and help a coal miner? Contact Joy Bullock, South Kentucky RECC, jbullock@skrecc.com; (606)451-4186.

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