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Coal Loses Its Grip in West Virginia

David Goldman's images show coal is barely surviving in Central Appalachia, and coal is about the only thing that West Virginia's McDowell County has.

. Streetlights bathe the town of Welch, West Virginia, in an orange glow on Oct. 6, 2015.

The one main source of decent paying work in southern West Virigina, coal mining, seems to be drying up for good, leaving many jobless in a region where mountainous terrain makes it difficult to diversify the economy.

David Goldman / AP

. A mural depicting a more vibrant time in the town's history decorates a building in the business district on Oct. 6 in Welch.

McDowell County, home to Welch, had a population of just under 100,000 in 1950. Now it's around 20,000. As jobs disappear, young people are forced to leave the area to find employment.

David Goldman / AP

. Superintendent Jackie Ratliff, a coal miner of 25 years, walks towards a pile of coal waiting to be shipped at a processing plant on Oct. 6 in Welch.

David Goldman / AP

. Scott Tiller, a coal miner of 31 years, operates a continuous miner machine in a coal mine roughly 40-inches-high on Oct. 6 in Welch.

David Goldman / AP

. Dennis Ferrell, a coal miner of 15 years, watches over conveyer belts carrying coal out of the Sally Ann 1 mine on Oct. 6, in Welch.

Now employment is falling further because the world is trying to turn away from coal in hopes of protecting the environment and human health. Coal is by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants among fuels used to make electricity.

David Goldman / AP

. Ratliff holds coal running through a processing plant on Oct. 6 in Welch.

David Goldman / AP

. Glen Wilson, from left, Jeremy Smith and James Likens learn solar panel installation on the roof of the Coalfield Development Corp. during a class on Oct. 5 in Huntington.

The program hires graduates of high school vocational programs to restore, repurpose or tear down old buildings, use old building materials to make furniture, or build new homes on reclaimed coalfield land.

David Goldman / AP

. Mine foreman and electrician Randall Wright looks at the mountains outside at the Sewell "R" coal mine on Oct. 6 in Yukon. Up until last year, Wright was making $35 an hour. Now he makes $15. "It's really hurting us," Wright said.

Despite hard times, miners won’t disappear completely from coal country. The coal they mine is high-quality stuff, used for making steel. It may even be used to build the frames for solar panels

David Goldman / AP

. Sepress Gilkerson, left, an unemployed coal miner, looks at food stamps paperwork as he leaves an unemployment office with his son Matt, 18, in Welch. “It’s kind of depressing to work all those years and then go to nothing," said Gilkerson. "I’ve had to go on food stamps, it’s embarrassing to say. There’s nothing for us to find here."

West Virginia is the only state in the country where more than half of adults are not working, according to the Census Bureau.

David Goldman / AP

. A sign in a storefront window sums up the area's decline on Oct. 7 in Welch.

David Goldman / AP