Shifting environmental and economic priorities have led to the loss of over 30,000 jobs in the coal mining sector since 2011. The output of coal in the region is set to decline to nearly 60% by 2035, mostly due to competition from other fuels. But retrained Appalachian coal miners are trying their hands at the new profession that are more environmental-friendly and attuned to the times.
The government and the unions realized the need to protect workers whose livelihood was threatened by the decline in the use of coal and other fossil fuel jobs. They are working together to ensure a just transition for the coal miners.
Coal Mining Was The Generational Occupation
The Appalachian coal belt was for long a center of coal mining and a stronghold of the United Mineworkers of America. The shift of the coal industry to Wyoming and other western states left the region economically devastated.
By 2013, Appalachian Kentucky had only 8,614 remaining coal miners. The numbers will steadily decline in the coming years. Eastern Kentucky had over 50,000 unemployed workers and the unemployment rate here was 10.3% against 7.4% for the whole nation.
Miners have been employed for generations in the mines of the region. James Scyphers was a third-generation coal miner before he had to shift to a construction profession. It paid less than half his mining job. He took other jobs, including tending bees and building hives under the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective.
He says that while the coal mining jobs were the best paying ones in the area, he is happy working for the Collective. This non-profit was established in 2016 and focuses on retrained Appalachian coal miners. It was formed from the funds of a settlement against Alpha Natural Resources, a coal mining operator, for violation of the Clean Water Act.
The non-profit has since used the funds to restore the local environment and for the development of sustainable economic prospects for the coal miners.
The non-profit helps the retrained Appalachian coal miners, plus other low-income populaces in the mining communities in the state to find new working opportunities and create additional income.
It wasn’t only the mining jobs. Other industries also began to shut down and whole communities began to suffer, says master beekeeper, Cindy Bee, of the Appalachian Headwaters. She says that they aim to boost the economy of the town.
The non-profit’s retrained Appalachian coal miners include 35 beekeepers and 50 more have joined classes set to begin soon. They operate in 17 regions in the state.
The Retrained Appalachian Coal Miners Can Begin Earning In A Year
The retrained Appalachian coal miners get equipment and also bees at a reduced price, or even free. They get access to further mentorship and training. Partners can maintain 2 to 20 hives.
Scyphers says that like coal mining, beekeeping also is a hands-on profession and requires training on the job. It requires commendable work ethics to succeed, he says.
The beekeepers started to maintain hives on their own in 2018, the first season with ‘boots on the ground’ according to Bee.
It requires one complete year of work before beekeepers begin to reap the fruits of their labor. The honey will be collected by the non-profit, bottled, and sold. For the produce, the beekeepers will get the market rate.
A healthy beehive can produce 60 to 100 pounds per season. The retrained Appalachian coal miners can earn around $732 per hive. For someone handling 20 hives, that works out to around $15,000 a season.
There are further opportunities for the retrained Appalachian coal miners to earn more by way of producing lip balm, candles, and various other wax-based products after further training by the collective.
The retrained Appalachian coal miners have realized that mining jobs will continue to be on the decline and big industry will not be coming to this region. So retraining for other jobs is the only option. Scyphers says that the work of the Collective has helped them make a profit out of beekeeping. He is positive that they can succeed in it.