HARLAN, Ky. -- When Ray Lamb got laid off from his job at an underground coal mine in Harlan County in June, he went from making about $1,000 a week to receiving an unemployment check of $415 a week.
With that, he couldn't pay both rent and child support, so he gave up his apartment and moved into a small camper trailer on his brother's property, Lamb said.
Those are the types of choices confronting others in the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, where an estimated 2,000 layoffs this year have hurt the linchpin of the economy.
"I've been in the mines 35 years and you can't buy a job right now," said Lamb, 58.
The number of coal jobs in Kentucky swings from year to year, but the mass layoffs this year go beyond what is typical in one area of the state. For instance, the average number of coal jobs statewide dropped by 1,180 from 2009 to 2010 the biggest annual swing in the 2000s but went back up in 2011, according to figures from the state Office of Employment and Training.
Unlike previous elections, coal has played a prominent role in the race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Coal also has been a contentious issue in the 6th District Congressional race between Rep. Den Chandler, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Andy Barr. There hasn't been any significant mining in the district for some time, but a number of coal companies have offices in Lexington and many voters are interested in the issue because of environmental and other concerns.
Coal surfaced as an issue in the presidential race because of Ohio, a coal-mining state and a pivotal battleground state that both campaigns see as a must-win to keep or take the White House. Kentucky has few electoral votes and Romney is likely to win the state comfortably, so neither candidate has courted the state's eastern coalfield as they have Ohio's.
If the presidential candidates had, they would have heard suggestions to spend more money on research to burn coal more cleanly, or to find other uses for it.
"It would solve our problems if they would try to use coal for other things," such as making shingles, said Jerry Asher, of Harlan County, a former miner.
The message from most people, however, is that the federal government should back off on environmental regulations that they think are crippling coal production.
Under Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency has used new standards to judge surface-mining permits, with the goal of protecting water quality, and has moved to further restrict power-plant emissions in ways that would make it more expensive to burn coal.
"The EPA's regulating us to death," said Terry Lewis, a disabled miner who helps run a small convenience store in Lynch, a historic mining town.
"You've got to have the EPA, but too much regulation can hurt, too."
Of course, "too much" regulation is a matter of opinion. Environmentalists have applauded the efforts to police surface mining and power-plant emissions.
Stanley Sturgill, a retired federal mine-safety inspector who lives up Main Street from the market, said the EPA was right to crack down on surface mining.
"I support mining 100 percent underground, but I do not support the devastation of these mountains and our water systems," he said.
Sturgill said others give him a "terrible time" about his call to end surface mining, but he doesn't care.
The region needs more training for people to move into jobs not dependant on the coal industry, he said.