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West Virginian Coal Country Battles Devastating Decline

Coal miners have worked in this part of the United States for over a century enjoying the best of the boom times and riding out the bad, the constant refrain being that coal would always be there.

Reuters photographer Robert Galbraith documented people and towns along West Virginia's Route 52, or "King Coal Highway" as it's known. Coal miners have worked in this part of the United States for over a century enjoying the best of the boom times and riding out the bad; the constant refrain being that coal would always be there, the mines would be back. But now with coal production slowing due to stricter environmental controls, the availability of natural gas and a shift to surface mining, the state's coal country has been hit hard with job losses and business closures, creating virtual ghost towns along the route.

In the photo above, coal miners enter a coal mine for the start of an afternoon shift near Gilbert, W. Va., on May 22, 2014.

Images were released on Oct. 14.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

A motorcycle rides past a roadside hotdog stand with a sign that reads "Hillbilly Hotdogs" in Lesage, W. Va., on May 24.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Sheila Ramsey holds the hand of her grandson, four-year-old Matthew Blankenship, in the home that they share with her father, and Matthew's father, near Gilbert, W. Va., on May 20. Blankenship's father, Aaron, said he has been unable to find coal mining work for four years, and will probably have to leave the area.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

A car is parked outside of the "Hard Times Tavern" in Fort Gay, W. Va., on May 19. With coal production slowing due to stricter environmental controls, the availability of natural gas and a shift to surface mining, the state's coal country has been hit hard with job losses and business closures.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Wayne Cline, 70, stands outside his home near Iaeger, W. Va., on May 21. Cline, a former coal miner, said he gets by on a $742 per month social security check.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Coal is stacked at the base of coal loaders along the Ohio River in Ceredo, W. Va., on May 18.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Retired coal miner Kenneth Douglas Sparks, right, watches his son coach his grandson's Little League baseball game in Gilbert, W. Va., on May 19. Sparks, who said his father worked in the same coal mine for 47 years, worked in the mines himself for 20 years.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

A vacant building is shown covered in vegetation along U.S. Route 52 near Gilbert, W. Va., on May 21. The highway, known locally as "The King Coal Highway" runs through West Virginia's traditional coal mining belt.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Coal miner Stewart Johnson, 59, right, is comforted by his son of the same name, while telling the story of losing his young daughter to a rare disease, outside the family home in Wharncliffe, W. Va., on May 23. Johnson, whose family has deep ties to mining, said he was advised by his doctor to stop working due to a various injuries and illness.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Coal miners Rodney Blankenship, left, Roger Vanatter, center, and an unidentified colleague prepare for the start of their afternoon shift in the locker room of a coal mine near Gilbert, W. Va., on May 22. 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."

Robert Galbraith / X90034

A coal miner wears a T-shirt prior to the start of his afternoon shift at a coal mine near Gilbert, W. Va., on May 22.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

The John Amos coal-fired power plant stands behind a home in Poca, W. Va., on May 18.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

A man rides a bicycle past vacant store fronts in Gilbert, W. Va., on May 22.

Robert Galbraith / X90034

Coal miner Mike Hawks, 53, stands in an underground tunnel at a coal processing facility near Gilbert, W. Va., May 22.

Robert Galbraith / X90034