DANVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — As a laid off coal mine electrician, Nolan Triplett doesn’t think his industry will ever return to the heady days when it powered America and offered generations of Appalachians a chance at a middle class life.
But he still backs the president who said he’d reopen the mines and put thousands back to work, even if such promises proved empty.
“Even if I don’t go back to this industry, I’m still with him,” said Triplett, 41, outside a mine worker certification office in Danville, a town of about 700 people along the Little Coal River in Boone County south of Charleston.
Four years after Donald Trump donned a miner’s helmet at a West Virginia campaign rally and vowed to save a dying industry, coal has not come roaring back. The fuel has been outmatched against cheaper, cleaner natural gas and renewable energy.
But many West Virginians applaud Trump’s efforts and remain loyal as he seeks a second term. Triplett and other voters say they are attracted to his “America First” slogan and anti-abortion stance, and figure he’s the only one standing in the way of the entire industry closing down.
“He’s done good for this country all around,” said Triplett, who lost his last mine job when the pandemic hit.
Democrat Joe Biden, who calls global warming an existential crisis, has promised to steer investments to coal and power plant communities, creating new jobs in renewable energy.
But many in coal country seem more intent on blaming the climate-change messenger than considering his plans for growth.
Next to Triplett stood Ronnie Starr, who lives near the Kentucky border in Mingo County, the scene of a legendary shootout over labor rights in the mines a century ago. He’s had to move as far as Alabama to find work as a mine electrician since he started in the early 2000s, and is also out of a job now. He said the last Democrat he voted for was Bill Clinton, and he enthusiastically supports Trump.
“You got the right president, things go good,” said Starr, 43.
“And you got one group that hates us with a passion and would rather see us starve out and die,” Triplett cut in, “then you get another group that supports us, so it’s a rollercoaster.”
Since 2014, West Virginia has lost nearly a third of its remaining full-time coal jobs as production declines, starving local governments of revenue. When Trump took office in January 2017, Boone County received nearly $269,000 in quarterly coal company severance taxes. This October, it got just $42,300.
In 2016, the federal agency reported the industry’s worst jobs record since it began collecting this data in 1978, showing a yearly average of 51,795 employees at U.S. coal mines. Employment increased by a marginal 1.9% as of 2019.
“The coal jobs did not come back as the president promised,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a rare Democrat still thriving in West Virginia. “The markets have shifted.”
Anthony Starkey, a retired miner in Danville, said Trump earned his vote again by signing a bill last year to save the pensions of some retired coal workers, including his own.
“He’s a typical New Yorker, he’s arrogant,” Starkey said, pausing while mowing the lawn outside the Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge in Madison, the Boone County seat. “Whether you love him or hate him, he’s done what he’s said he’s going to do.”