GARRETT, Ky. -- When business screeched to a halt at Jerry Howard's eastern Kentucky mine engineering company two years ago, he decided to call it quits after four decades in the coal industry.
"We were sort of forced out,'' Howard says of the former company, Walturn, where he was part owner.
Business owners like Howard, politicians and miners in the hilly coalfields of Central Appalachia blame the industry decline on tougher regulation from the Obama administration.
They aren't as ready to talk about something a change in administrations cannot fix. The region's thick, easy-to-reach seams of coal are running out, forcing many operators to shift to cheaper and more destructive mining methods that draw heavier environmental regulation.
Coal here is getting harder and costlier to dig -- and the region, which includes Southern West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, is headed for a huge collapse in coal production.
The U.S. Department of Energy projects that in a little more than three years, the amount of coal mined here will be just half of what it was in 2008. That's a significant loss of a signature Appalachian industry, and the jobs that come with it.
"The seams of coal that are left in this area are harder and harder to mine, and they're thinner and thinner and thinner,'' said Leonard Fleming, a retired Kentucky miner and union leader in Letcher County who worked in the industry for 32 years.
The thinner seams make it less cost-effective for a coal operator to send an army of miners underground, so surface mining with blasting and earth movers has often been the answer.
"I've heard of them getting little seams of coal as small as six inches,'' Fleming said.
Coal company reports to investors are also candid about the region's steadily declining supply of coal.
Arch Coal, the nation's second-largest coal producer, told investors last year that the region's coal "is in secular decline -- faced with depleting reserves and significant regulatory hurdles.''
Central Appalachia saw a boom in surface mining over the last decade, helped by industry-friendly regulation under former President Bush. Hiring in eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia doubled at surface mines over the last decade, yet overall production fell by 25 percent there in all mines under and above ground.
The federal government's projections are dire for a region practically synonymous with coal. The Energy Department's statistical agency, the Energy Information Administration, says production is expected to drop to 112 million tons by 2015, less than half of the 234 million tons mined three years ago.
A collapse of that magnitude would have a devastating effect on the economies in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, which produce about 90 percent of Central Appalachian coal.
There were about 37,000 coal industry employees in Central Appalachia in 2008, accounting for anywhere from 1 to 40 percent of the labor force in individual counties, according to a report by Downstream Strategies, a consulting firm in Morgantown, W.Va., which issued a report on the region's coming decline.
The report blames the decline on the region's depleted reserves, environmental regulations as well as competition from regions that have lower operating costs, like the western U.S.
"We are going to see declines in labor and jobs, and it's going to happen rapidly'' in West Virginia, said Rory McIlmoil, who helped draft the report. McIlmoil said that state is expected to see a decline of over $100 million in the taxes coal operators pay to mine in the state.
If the loss projections are true, "that's going to have a drastic effect'' in eastern Kentucky, said Brad Hall, president of the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in Pikeville.