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'Embedded' Reports On Coal From Appalachia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the last six years, the coal industry has taken a major hit. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Republicans and the industry say that's because of a war on coal led by Democrats and environmentalists. Experts say it's mostly because of cheaper alternatives to thermal coal, the kind of coal that makes electricity.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Still, President Trump promises to bring back coal. And another type of coal is seeing an upturn. Kelly McEvers and Chris Benderev of the Embedded podcast spent more than a year going to coal country. And they found that many people think this upturn is because of Trump. That's not the whole story, though.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: One of the first surprising things we learned was that this upturn in metallurgical coal - the kind of coal used to make steel, not electricity - actually happened before Trump was elected. Then we meet Ray Brown, who helps run coal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. And he says his company is hiring dozens of new jobs. When we ask why, we learn the other surprising thing.

RAY BROWN: What it amounts to is some Chinese guy sitting in an office somewhere determining the world, you know?

BENDEREV: What it amounts to, he says, is some Chinese guy sitting in an office determining the world.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: And he's mostly right. Here's what happened. In spring 2016, the Chinese government reduced the number of days that coal mines in China could operate.

BENDEREV: Then the supply of coal went down, and the price of metallurgical coal quadrupled on the global market because of China.

MCEVERS: But still, people like Gary Dotson want to believe it was because of Donald Trump. Gary is a coal mine operator, which means big companies contract him to mine the coal. When we first meet Gary, it's in late 2016, and it's at his mine in eastern Kentucky. Three of his guys have just left and gotten new jobs. This hasn't happened in years. And Gary's just hired three new young guys.

GARY DOTSON: You know, we have to start training these boys. If we don't train some of these kids, then this is going to be a dying art.

MCEVERS: Gary has worked in coal his whole life. He says the downturn in coal during the Obama years was the worst he ever saw. He cut men's salaries, cut their health insurance.

DOTSON: And then we just said, we'll just have to try to survive. And if we have to cut them anymore, we'll just quit. We won't try to do this.

MCEVERS: Things were so bad Gary was seriously considering shutting down a coal mining business he has run for more than 30 years until Donald Trump got elected.

DOTSON: We are ready to go.

MCEVERS: OK.

Gary really wants to take me in the mine, so I put on a hard hat with a light on it, and we get on this thing called a buggy. It's like an industrial golf cart where you lay down flat.

I'll get on that side? OK.

Gary opens these metal doors to a hole in the side of the mountain, and we just drive in.

DOTSON: Well, is this your first trip underground?

MCEVERS: Yes.

DOTSON: You haven't panicked on me yet.

MCEVERS: No. What's there to panic about?

DOTSON: It's not like you think it is.

MCEVERS: OK.

DOTSON: You don't get a good picture unless you do what you're doing today.

MCEVERS: I am surprised by how orderly it all is. We're driving down what feels like a road.

We're inside a mountain, driving inside a mountain.

All along the road are what look like little square rooms that have been cut out of the mountain. Each one has a number. The other thing I notice is this feeling of how dangerous the work can be. Mine accidents have decreased over the decades, but really horrible things do still happen.

DOTSON: Now right here is a refuge chamber through that door. And you...

MCEVERS: Refuge?

DOTSON: You'll see one of these lifelines. That's what you go get in in case something happens, you know? But that's where I'm not going to go. I'm going to find my way out of here if I can. If I'm I'm-a (ph) live, then I'm going to move.

MCEVERS: Then Gary shows me this massive thing called a continuous miner. Imagine a bulldozer with these big arms on the front with these huge jagged teeth that cut into the mountain and turn it into a big pile of rock, dust and coal.

Oh, wow, so it's like, boring, into the rock in the front.

DOTSON: And that was six ton right then.

MCEVERS: Just then?

DOTSON: Six ton.

MCEVERS: Wow.

We watch it for a while, and then we head back out. It's a mile and a half to the entrance.

There's the outside world. Coming out of the hole.

Coming out, you get this intense feeling like you just went so far under a mountain you were in the next town. And if you're a miner, you did this while also extracting something that makes the steel that built our country, bridges and skyscrapers. And you made it out alive. To do that every day must feel like a big deal.

BENDEREV: So in late 2016, Gary was feeling optimistic. But then one day the following spring, I text Gary, and he writes back that it's a bad day; don't come today. The next day I go to the mine, and he tells me there was a bunch of rain. One of their pumps broke. And they had to shut down the mine and pump water out all day.

DOTSON: I spent a lot of money yesterday, probably $25,000 yesterday just on pumps alone. And that's producing no coal (laughter). It's tough. And you're still waiting on money from the company. You don't have any. And Friday, we will be a month behind on pay.

BENDEREV: So not only did they have to stop production the day before because of the pumps, but the company that has contracted Gary to mine the coal - they're not paying him on time. And this surprises me because we know that met coal is in the middle of this upturn.

'Cause coal says the prices are up.

DOTSON: Yeah. Yeah. They are for them, but not for us.

MCEVERS: Here's what's been happening. Every month, the company that contracts Gary to mine coal only pays him half or a third of what he's owed. So at this point, the company is a month behind. And the thing is it's not like Gary can just go to the company and say, if you don't pay me, I'm walking. Even though there has been this upturn in metallurgical coal, it's not like there are a ton of companies out there that are willing to give Gary a new and better contract to mine the coal. And this is one of the things that happens when an entire industry is shrinking. Gary is stuck.

DOTSON: There's no other place to go, and they know it.

MCEVERS: We should say we reached out to the company several times to ask if they are not paying Gary on time, but they did not respond.

BENDEREV: By the end of 2017, Gary has some decisions to make. The company that he has a contract with is still not paying him on time. Gary says he's barely making enough to get by. And he needs to buy some new equipment that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So Gary and his partners have to decide whether to put up their houses as collateral.

DOTSON: And if you make it, you keep your home. If you don't make it, you lose it. It's just the way it works.

BENDEREV: And if they don't take out that loan...

DOTSON: Well, you've got to shut down. You've got to leave. No other thing.

MCEVERS: By spring of this year, Gary and his two business partners decide to go for it even though Gary's 63 and about to retire. Gary says after all he's been through, he did it for one reason - Donald Trump.

DOTSON: Because he just mentioned coal on television, and everybody had a different feeling about it.

MCEVERS: So you think you yourself - like, if Obama was still in office or Hillary Clinton was in office, you yourself would be making different decisions about whether or not to go forward?

DOTSON: I would have never went and bought a miner.

MCEVERS: A continuous miner - you heard about it before - is Gary's most important piece of equipment.

DOTSON: I would have never went and bought another miner. That is a fact (laughter). Wouldn't have even thought about it. That's how much of a difference it would have made to me, that if they would have - if one of them had been elected again, I would have already quit.

MCEVERS: That miner is up and running now. But the company still isn't paying Gary on time. He says he might have to close down the mine for all of July. For Embedded, I'm Kelly McEvers.

BENDEREV: And I'm Chris Benderev.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON ISBIN'S "WILD MOUNTAIN THYME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.