The John Amos coal-fired power plant is seen behind a home in Poca, West Virginia, on May 18, 2014. Reuters/Robert Galbraith

A photo essay of life along the King Coal Highway shows the struggling, post-mining towns of southern West Virginia.

King Coal Highway is the portion of U.S. Route 52 that gets drivers from Williamson to Bluefield, West Virginia. It's also a reminder of a mining industry that has supported the state's middle class for generations—an era of prosperity that is quickly winding down.

As Chico Harlan reported for the Washington Post's Storyline blog earlier this year, over 10,000 miners in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky have been laid off since 2012. Many of the coal reserves are harder to mine after years of easy extraction. And Environmental Protection Agency regulations, both existing and proposed, make an industry comeback unlikely.

The state sued the EPA in August, claiming that the federal agency can't put limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants under the Clean Air Act. In June, the EPA proposed new emissions guidelines that would create state-specific goals to lower rates of CO2 emissions.

With many small towns along the West Virginia portion of U.S. 52 struggling, local politicians are trying to come up with answers. Early Thursday, West Virginia Senate President, Jeff Kessler (D), announced the creation of a new task force that will look into creating new kinds of employment in the region while preserving what's left of the mining industry that so many still depend on.

Photographer Robert Galbraith recently shared his trip along King Coal highway over at Reuters' Wider Image blog. Through his shots, we see a typical day in the life of a coal worker.

Coal miners Rodney Blankenship (L), Roger Vanatter (C), and an unidentified colleague prepare for the start of their afternoon shift in the locker room of a coal mine near Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 22, 2014. Blankenship, 53, a coal miner for 30 years, said, "You go in there, hope to have good productivity on your shift, and get out safely." (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
Coal miners enter a coal mine for the start of an afternoon shift near Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 22, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
Coal miner Mike Hawks, 53, stands in an underground tunnel at a coal processing facility near Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 22, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
Coal is stacked at the base of loaders along the Ohio River in Ceredo, West Virginia, on May 18, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
A view of the Tug river running through downtown Iaeger, West Virginia, on May 20, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
A vacant building is shown covered in vegetation along U.S. Route 52 near Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 21, 2014. The highway, known locally as "The King Coal Highway," runs through West Virginia's traditional coal mining belt. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
A car is parked outside of the "Hard Times Tavern" in Fort Gay, West Virginia, on May 19, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
A statue of Marilyn Monroe is shown outside the now-closed Happy Days Diner in Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 20, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
Coal trains sit idle in front of a home in Iaeger, West Virginia, on May 20, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
A man rides a bicycle past vacant storefronts in Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 22, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
Unemployed coal miners Todd Hatfield (L) and Dave Houck talk at Hatfield's bar and restaurant in Gilbert, West Virginia, on May 22, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
A replica of the Statue of Liberty is shown in downtown Matewan, West Virginia, on May 19, 2014. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

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