PRESTONSBURG - The announcement of stricter federal emissions standards on coal-fired power plants was met with groans Monday from many Kentuckians in coal country, worried about keeping their jobs and their way of life.
The Obama administration's new rules seek significant reductions in the greenhouse gases that can contribute to climate change. In Kentucky, where about 90 percent of the electricity generated comes from coal, the rules call for a reduction of about an 18 percent in carbon emissions by 2030. Nationwide, the goal is a 30 percent reduction.
In the eastern Kentucky coalfields, residents and workers who depend on the industry say they fear the new rules will put more pressure on the region's struggling mining industry.
"Why keep chopping the legs out of your own economy to try to fight a world problem? You are going to destroy your country trying to set an example," Gary Whitt said while eating lunch at Giovanni's in downtown Prestonsburg.
The 29-year-old railroad worker said his job depends on transporting coal. He said at least 50 of his co-workers have been laid off, and he's worried he could be next.
Johnny Spears, 31, was a heavy equipment operator for Kentucky Fuels for 10 years when he lost his job last year. He's now working as a county animal control officer but with a much smaller salary.
"It's killing the economy in our area," he said. "There's no money circulating. Businesses are hurt. Everybody's out of work."
A sign in Prestonburg invites travelers to "take a step back in time," but many there wish they really could turn back the clock.
Twenty years ago, more than 150 coal mines were active in Floyd County. Now there are fewer than five, according to R.D. "Doc" Marshall, the county judge-executive.
However, environmental activists say coal is past its prime as an economic driver in the state.
"Even when the economy is firing on all cylinders, when everything is going great, eastern Kentucky always has higher unemployment numbers than the rest of the state," said Tom Pearce, a regional organizer for The Sierra Club in Louisville. "I will say this, if coal is so great, why is Kentucky so poor?"
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, panned the new rules. Each said the regulations would put Kentucky coal miners out of jobs and hurt the state's economy.
Eastern Kentucky residents say the slumping coal economy is hurting local government, too. Kentucky taxes coal companies by how much coal they mine and sends some of that money back to local governments. With declining coal production, Floyd County's budget has dropped by $7 million since 2007. Last year, the county lost $1 million in coal tax funds.
The uncertainty is taking its toll on some residents. Libby Lawson, 53, said her husband lost his coal job last year. He got another job at a mine about 30 minutes away last month.
"I understand there should be regulations," she said. "But, I mean, not as stiff, you know? It's like they are trying to shut them down."
But Louisville resident Kathy Little said the health effects of burning coal must be considered. Little has lived for three decades across the street from the Cane Run Generating Station, a coal-burning power plant constructed in the 1950s.
"What are they going to be left with if they don't curb CO2 now?" she asked. "If you care about your little ones then that's what you need to think about, and not so much the here and now."