Linda Meeker has run the "Heart of God Soup Kitchen" in Danville since June 2010. The operation is open Monday through Friday for two hours in the last 10 days of the month. "That's when people run out of money," she said.
The kitchen served a record 8,100 meals in 2012, about 30 percent more than in 2011, Meeker, 64, said.
"In the past three months the meals have doubled because all the men have lost their jobs," she said as the smell of garlic, spaghetti sauce and fried chicken filled the air.
The number of West Virginians receiving food stamps last year averaged 346,833, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show, up 25 percent from 2008.
Even the prospect of employment in the mines can be ephemeral these days. Charles Williamson, of Logan, vowed to himself not to follow his father into the coal mines. After getting a bachelor's degree in finance from Marshall University, though, he was unable to find work as a stock broker. Burdened with student loans, he took a job with Alpha Natural Resources Inc. He was laid off before he started.
"I'm actually living with my parents," he said. "A 40- year-old man living with his parents - there's no more jobs around here."
Blackburn, the industry consultant, is a fourth-generation miner. He has witnessed downturns before and heard about others from his father and grandfather.
"It's different," he said. "We're going to lose a lot of miners. The difference is even in the '80s we were able to sell coal. Right now if you don't have contracts, I don't know where you're going to sell coal. This is intense."
Each of the coal industry's jobs generates six others, from hydraulic repair shops and fabrication businesses to conveyor belt repair, restaurants and health care, Blackburn said.
The fuel's decline is having the reverse effect. At Stephens Auto Center in Danville, new and used-car receipts were down 20 percent in November from a year earlier, said Richard Stephens, owner of the dealership. "There will come a time when I may have to make some hard decisions," possibly laying off his workers, he said.
Peabody, Arch Coal Inc. and Consol Energy Inc. are among the companies that have reduced production. Patriot Coal Corp., spun off from Peabody in 2007, filed for bankruptcy protection in July, saying "the coal industry is undergoing a major transformation."
"It's got to go through a painful adjustment," said Gerard McCloskey, chairman of Merlin Trade & Consultancy and founder of IHS's McCloskey Group, a Petersfield, Britain-based coal market research company. "It's got to happen so quickly. That makes it that much more painful."
Global demand for coal isn't nearly as grim. Worldwide consumption will rise 2.6 percent annually in the next six years and even challenge oil as the top energy source, the International Energy Agency said Dec. 18 in its Medium-Term Coal Market Report.
U.S. producers also may benefit in the European Union as carbon permits have plunged 48 percent in the past year and lawmakers resist measures to boost the market because it may negatively affect the economy as it tries to recover from recession. Prices would first have to rise to a level that makes it economical for U.S. companies to ship the power-plant fuel to the continent, said Lucas Pipes, an analyst at Brean Capital LLC in New York.
While coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin and the Illinois Basin fare better domestically than the Appalachian variety because they're more competitive with gas, the ability to capitalize on Asian demand has been slowed as environmental groups block expansion of U.S. port capacity, Wood Mackenzie's Preston said.
Back in Boone County, Richard Light, 46, frets about how he and his three daughters will make it in the next three years.
He's still employed by Hobet Mining, where he took a $5-an- hour pay cut and saw his personal days cut to six from 24. If he can make it three more years he'll have 20 years of service, guaranteeing a pension and medical benefits.
"You don't know what's going to come out of this," he said. "People say there's other jobs, but that's not true. There's nothing around here."
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