Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
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.