×

In this swing state, coal country is Trump country

WAYNESBURG, Pennsylvania — As our country contemplates who will be the next president of the United States, there is no better example of the sharp political dichotomy than the state of Pennsylvania, where 20 electoral votes are up for grabs.

In Philadelphia, passionate millennials are rocking the vote for Hillary Clinton in a big way. Pittsburgh is seeing similar sentiment. But less than an hour away, in southwestern Pennsylvania, lies Greene County — or coal country. It's here where Donald Trump is king.

Generations have grown up on coal in this blue-collar county. It is the economic life's blood for towns here. But coal's losing ground. In recent years, mines like the Emerald Mine have gone bankrupt, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed.

"We got quite a few guys that come in filed bankrupt. They can't afford nothing. Lost their car, lost their house, lost their truck. Everything," said Dave Baer, a former coal miner who now works at CareerLink helping other displaced coal miners find work.

Emerald Mine, located in Waynesburg, closed down last November.
Jessica Golden | CNBC
Emerald Mine, located in Waynesburg, closed down last November.

When unemployed coal workers come looking for a new job, they typically can't find the big salaries they once made in coal — forcing many into debt, bankruptcy — or worse.

"When you worked at the coal mine, you write your own paycheck," said Baer. Some miners could make as much as $150,000 annually working overtime, holidays and weekends. But now, they're looking at job openings that might pay $30,000 a year.

And it's not just the miners feeling the impact. Local governments, real estate, local businesses are all suffering.

"For every miner that's laid off, it affects four other people," said Blair Zimmerman, Greene County executive.

At the local BBQ joint, Hot Rod's, business this year is down 20 percent as fewer miners are eating out and those that are dining are spending less.

"People aren't even drinking. My alcohol sales are down 50 percent," said co-owner Rod Phillips.

It's not just in Greene County that coal is on the decline. More than 30,000 coal jobs have disappeared across America in the last five years as the share of electricity generated from coal has plummeted, from 45 to 31 percent.

"We don't know how long it's [coal] going to stay or last. You know what's going to happen after this election," said former miner Dave Serock, who has left the industry and now helps other coal miners find employment in other fields.

Clinton supporters say she and President Barack Obama don't deserve the blame.

"It's really been natural gas and the switch from power plants switching from coal to natural gas that has cut into the industry more than anything. Plus, the automation going on," said Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive.


Laid-off coal workers have had to reinvent themselves to find new job opportunities.
Jessica Golden | CNBC
Laid-off coal workers have had to reinvent themselves to find new job opportunities.

Meanwhile, Clinton is pushing for renewable energy with a $30 billion proposal to retrain coal miners for other industries.

"Her investment in these communities and abandoned mines and revitalizing plants and retraining gives people an opportunity — not just for miners but for their children and grandchildren," said Fitzgerald.

Even longtime Dems like Jim Popielarcheck are crossing party lines to vote Trump.
Jessica Golden | CNBC
Even longtime Dems like Jim Popielarcheck are crossing party lines to vote Trump.

But Clinton's plan doesn't sit well in Waynesburg.

"If Hillary Clinton wins, she's going to shut the coal mines down. Known fact," said coal mine electrician Jim Popielarcheck — a registered Democrat with four generations of miners in his family. "It's a gimme who I'm going to vote for. You have a campaign one person says they are going to shut you down and the other is going to help you. There is no choice who I'm going to vote for," he added.