Utilities are deciding to retire coal-burning power plants because of the costs they would face to keep them in service under pending emissions rules, Popovich said.
Kentucky Utilities has received permission to retire three of its coal-fired power plants in favor of natural-gas generation, and in May, Kentucky Power backed away from a plan to spend nearly $1 billion to install pollution controls at its coal-fired Big Sandy plant near Louisa.
The decision creates uncertainty about the future of the plant, which buys most of its coal from Eastern Kentucky.
A WAVE OF LAYOFFS
Coal employment had held steady or even grown in some Eastern Kentucky counties the past few years, but a wave of layoff announcements started early this year and just kept coming:
Fifty-two people at Enterprise Mining's surface operation in Knott County on Feb. 3. Two weeks later, 109 at Xinergy Corp.'s Straight Creek mine in Bell County. In April, 160 at Sapphire Coal in Letcher County.
June brought the crippling announcements that Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal Inc. would lay off more than 850 employees in Pike, Martin, Knott, Perry, Breathitt and Floyd counties.
Jeff Whitehead, head of a jobs program in 23 Eastern Kentucky counties, said the state has received notice of 1,800 coal layoffs this year.
But some companies don't report. The total number of layoffs easily could be 2,000, Whitehead said, which is what county officials estimated.
Statewide, coal-mining employment reached 18,600 in a March 2009 survey. The number was down to 15,600 in May - before more layoffs were announced - with Eastern Kentucky accounting for most of the drop.
"It's pretty devastating," said Whitehead, executive director of the East Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
There are opportunities in the region in skilled trades and health care, Whitehead said, but he acknowledged there is nothing to replace all the lost coal jobs, which paid an average of $70,000.
Many laid-off miners would like to find jobs at other mines, but there are few such jobs available, and the word is more mines will close.
Joe Caudill, 26, said he worked enough overtime to make $105,000 last year as a roof-bolter at an underground Arch Coal mine at Raven, in Knott County.
But early April 20, as he finished working the third shift, managers told Caudill and others they were being laid off because of the downturn in the market for coal to produce electricity.
Caudill says he will look for another mine job but might have to drive far from his home to find one, or move. And a lot of other people will be after the same job.
"It'll be tough," he said.
Coal has been so embedded in the culture of Eastern Kentucky that some miners haven't come to grips with the reality of perhaps having to do something else.
"That's what we do, is work in the mines," said Brad Tackett, 48, who was laid off from his job as an electrician at Arch's Raven mine.
The job losses will almost certainly aggravate a three-decade population drain.
Slone, the rock-truck driver who moved to Lexington after being laid off from a surface mine in April, didn't like moving away from family.
But with his bank account dwindling and poor prospects for a good-paying job to replace his $4,000 a month salary, he felt he had no choice.
"It was either stay down there and work for a grocery store or come down here," said Slone, 26. "There's not any work" in Eastern Kentucky "unless you're in the medical field."
BUSINESSES TAKE A HIT
Some laid-off miners are still being paid as part of their 60-day notice, so the full effect of the layoffs hasn't hit.
But business owners said they can tell a difference.
Lola Slone and her brother, Garfield Slone, run a small store at Pippa Passes that their parents started more than 60 years ago. It's on the road to the complex where Arch Coal began cutting more than 250 jobs in June.
Before the layoffs, miners would stop in for gas, soft drinks, snacks, smokeless tobacco or a Red Bull energy drink, but business has slowed noticeably since then, Slone said.
"It'll get worse after they've drained out their unemployment," she said.
Nearby at Topmost, Robin Mullins said she has seen a drop in business at her Beaver Creek Restaurant, where a sign over the counter says "Proud to be a coal miner."
Arch Coal employees used to come in regularly, and employees from an underground mine and prep plant sometimes got lunches to go, but Arch idled those operations.
Mullins said she had heard about two miners who are going to try to scratch out a living painting cars. She knows of one couple who moved to Colorado.
"There's not any work around here," she said. "It's going to affect everybody."
The loss of coal production and jobs won't just hurt families and businesses. It probably will cause cuts in government services, too.
Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Thompson said he budgeted $2.9 million in revenue this fiscal year, which started July 1, from the tax on mining and processing coal and natural gas. He thinks the county will be lucky to get a third of that.
"We're going to be in a dire situation," Thompson said.