coal

This story is part of a series on coal country by NPR's Embedded podcast. Episode audio is below.

On May 5, 2016, Donald Trump led a campaign rally in Charleston, W.Va.

He put on a hard hat and pretended he was shoveling coal. The crowd loved it.

President Trump's nominee for deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, has spent much of his career working for less oversight from the agency.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Environmental groups and concerned residents this week told federal officials the Oklahoma agency charged with protecting air, land and water lacked the resources and rules to manage a state-run plan to regulate coal ash.

U.S. coal mines recorded 15 workplace deaths in 2017 only a year after they hit a record low, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data released on Tuesday.

In 2016, just nine deaths occurred in U.S. coal mines.

West Virginia mines saw eight deaths, Kentucky had two, and one each occurred at mines in Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The tiny community of Bokoshe is flanked by old mines, which companies are filling with thousands of tons of waste produced by the coal-fired power plant down the road.

The coal waste — known as coal ash, or fly ash — is a powdery, pernicious dust that blows off trucks and pits. Residents worry about breathing the ash, fear it has contaminated local water supplies and have linked it to various medical problems, including cancer.

Ernest Littlebird put his grill out on the side of Route 39 in Lame Deer, Mont., under the shade of a tree and started grilling hamburgers.

"Come get a dollar burger," he says. "Good meal, you know, something to put in the belly at least."

Littlebird is an entrepreneur. This is his second year selling dollar hamburgers out of his minivan when he couldn't find other work. Jobs are scarce here on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and so is money.

But Littlebird thinks they don't have to be.

Steven Somsen's farm got a new addition last year, breaking up fields of wheat and soybeans that span as far as the eye can see from his rural North Dakota home.

"We ended up with some towers on our property," he says, nodding toward the giant, spinning, white wind turbines dotting the farmland around his house.

Xcel Energy, a Midwest-based utility, installed three on his land, among the 100 turbines placed near his remote community of Courtenay.

President Trump announced Thursday that the U.S. will leave the Paris climate deal.

Here are five things that could be affected by the decision.

1. The coal industry

Even coal companies had lobbied the Trump administration to stay in the agreement.

As Coal Jobs Decline, Solar Sector Shines

May 6, 2017

Craig Williams is still mining coal despite tough times for the business. "We're one of the last industries around and hope to keep it that way," he says in a breakroom at Consol Energy's Harvey mine, south of Pittsburgh.

The father of two — speaking in his dusty work jacket and a hard hat with headlamp — says coal is the best way he's able to support his family. He declines to give his salary, but nationally, coal miners average about $80,000 a year.

Coal has long had a grip on American politics. That's why politicians worry about its fate. They tout the fossil fuel's contribution to the U.S. economy, but lately they've also been trying to find a way to clean up coal's image.

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