- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Coal-producing counties in central Appalachia had significant population declines last year amid a storm of layoffs in the mining industry, according to U.S. census figures released Thursday.

Figures show thousands of residents moved out of coal-rich regions in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia in 2015.

In West Virginia, nine of the 10 counties that lost the most population were in the southern coalfields. The biggest toll was in McDowell County, which lost 2.2 percent of its residents to fall below 20,000 in population for the first time since the 1900 Census.

McDowell County is a shell of what it was a half-century ago when it led the nation in coal production. The county’s population peaked at 98,887 in 1950. Now, more than a third of its residents live in poverty.

But McDowell County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Stephanie Addair said the county isn’t giving up its fight to bring in jobs that have seemed scarce ever since U.S. Steel sold the last of its mining operations in 2003.

There was some good news last year when Bluestone Resources Inc. announced the reopening of two southern West Virginia mines, including one in McDowell County.

That was an anomaly. Usually the headlines are about layoffs. Another economic hit came in January when Wal-Mart closed its only store in the county.

“We’re resilient people,” Addair said Thursday. “We’re going to come back.”

If that’s true, coal might not be the driving force. Although many mines are still operating in the county, the industry has seen thousands of layoffs in the past year. And producers Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal, with many operations in central Appalachia, have filed for bankruptcy protection.

U.S. coal production is projected to dip to 834 million tons this year, the lowest since 1983, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In eastern Kentucky, coal employment is less than half of what it was in 2008.

Last year all of Kentucky’s 10 top coal-producing counties lost residents, a combined drop of 3,060. Top producer Pike County’s population fell 1,043 residents, or 1.66 percent. Harlan County, where an Alpha mine was idled in 2015, lost 353 residents, or 1.26 percent.

In Virginia, top state coal producer Buchanan County saw the third-biggest drop in population last year at 1.73 percent. Nearby Dickenson County saw a 1.25 percent drop and Wise County had a 0.59 percent dip.

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said local placement programs for out-of-work miners often find them new jobs outside the coalfields.

“We understand that as there’s a reduction in production of coal and employment, in many cases it forces people to move elsewhere,” Bissett said. “We would definitely suggest there’s a connection to the downturn in coal” and population losses.

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