Alabama Coal: Past and Present

May 8, 2017

There were a number of audiences being targeted during the race for the Presidency. One that hits home here in Alabama were coal workers. That energy source was once Alabama’s lifeblood. However, new regulations and new energy sources are changing the story and promises from the White House may not do much to breathe new life into what looks like a struggling industry.

Nelson Brooke is the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, and the health of this body of water is second only to giving us directions as we drive around town. It's easy to tell: We're in coal country.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke
Credit Allison Mollenkamp / APR

“Yeah, yeah, so that’s the above ground mine works. There’s the coal coming out of the tipple. And then that’s a massive waste pile back off here.”

As Brooke pointed out, the machinery of coal is just part of the landscape in Brookwood. To hear stories of the coal people, we had to go north to Jasper.

“I got laid off in about 2014, and that’s what brought me here.”

Cody Woods is a student at Bevill State. He’s from Oakman and works for the Drummond Company.

“I mean, really didn’t have anything to fall back on other than being a coal miner cause that’s what I’ve done since high school. And all the coal mines were laying off, so there really wasn’t nowhere for me to go.”

While he was working on his electrical tech certification, Woods was called back by Drummond when the price of coal went down. He’s trying to be optimistic about the industry overall.

Credit Allison Mollenkamp / APR

“It actually is coming back right now. It’s doing well. Australia flooded out and they’re not expecting to run coal the rest of the year. And I heard something about China was turning away Korean coal and buying from the USA now. So coal’s picked back up.”

These smaller upturns are part of a larger picture, and that picture may not be as optimistic as what Cody Woods is hoping for. Ahmad Ijaz is executive director and director of economic forecasting for Center for Economic and Business Research at the University of Alabama. He says the decrease in coal jobs is long term.

“If you look at the coal industry for, say, the last ten years, you know that employment in the coal industry has gone down, but the GDP or the production side of it has not really gone down.”

That is, there’s demand for coal, but not for the people who dig it out of the ground. Automation is one factor leading to the decrease in jobs. Coal’s overall popularity has decreased as well, though. So what’s causing the downfall?

“Well, for us, it’s been fueled primarily by more stringent federal environmental regulations over the last twenty years.”

Michael Sznajderman is a spokesperson for Alabama Power.

Credit Allison Mollenkamp / APR

“And over that time, and really over the last five years, those tougher regulations have sort of led us to decrease coal more significantly and increase our use of natural gas.”

Some who’d like to see return of the heyday of Alabama’s coal industry are putting their hopes on President Trump. He spent a lot of time making a lot of promises to workers in manufacturing and in coal. Mr. Trump has already started rolling back regulations on the coal industry. That’s not good news for everybody.

“If we’re at a place where we can roll things back, then that’s very scary to us.”

That’s Nelson Brooke, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper….

“Because that means that we could go back to where we’re trying to come from. Which is to more polluted streams, less ability to support life, and streams that are putting contaminated water out into the river, where a lot of communities get their drinking water and recreate.”

The regulations also aren’t all new. Environmentalists have been working to protect rivers and streams for decades.

“Prior to the Clean Water Act of 1972, it was no holds barred. I mean, there were no rules in place. So coal mining companies were allowed to just lay waste to the land and leave it that way.”

In Brookwood, coal’s effects on the land are clear. Nelson Brooke took us to a slurry pit.

Slurry Pit
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

“So the underground coal mines produce a lot of waste rock and coal refuse that’s associated with a mining operation underground, and then they mix that with water into a slurry mixture and pump it through a pipeline up to the surface and put it in massive repositories.”

The sheer size is hard to capture. The pit runs parallel to the highway for nearly a mile and a half. Regulations are meant to keep the contents of the pit from ending up in drinking water.

In the end, Michael Sznajderman isn’t sure what will happen for coal if the regulations are repealed. Of course, the trends are hard to deny.

“I will tell you, our trend over time, we expect to be further reducing our use of coal, increasing our use of natural gas. Again because of current regulations, future regulations, and the economics of natural gas becoming more attractive.”

So Alabama’s history of coal has arrived in the present, and the future doesn’t lie in coal.

This series continues in a second piece looking at the future of energy and the communities that produce it right here in Alabama.