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Coal Struggle Endures With Mine Layoff Plans

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 9:03am
Jonathan Mattise, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- From Boone County banker Lee Milam's experience, each round of coal mine layoffs that hits southern West Virginia stifles his community's already-fragile economy.

Thursday's news was especially bitter. Coal giant Alpha Natural Resources revealed plans to shed 1,100 workers at 11 West Virginia surface mines and related operations by mid-October. In Boone, where about 2,400 people work in coal mining, two mines employing 462 people could be shuttered.

Potentially, that's 462 fewer folks, averaging a salary of nearly $85,000, spending money around town.

"If you own a restaurant, you're a coal miner and you just don't know it," said Milam, president of Whitesville State Bank. "If you're a banker, you're a coal miner. They're your neighbors and your friends."

For the many Appalachian critics of President Barack Obama's energy policies, Alpha's timing Thursday sparked a rallying cry. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency kicked off long-awaited public meetings on proposed limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, part of the administration's plan to stem global warming.

But bigger, systematic challenges facing Appalachian coal have been percolating for years, including less-expensive natural gas, lousy markets and dwindling reserves.

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said Alpha's plans are just "the opening shot" of the EPA rule's impact on coal. States have until June 2016 to submit carbon-reducing plans and could have to comply in 2017, or 2018 if they partner with other states.

When Alpha partly laid blame on EPA regulation for layoff plans, it set off a chain reaction of political finger-pointing in West Virginia. Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the state's fears over EPA rules became reality. Several GOP congressional candidates heightened attacks against Democratic foes for being on the same side as Obama.

Outcry against Obama by West Virginia Democrats and Republicans alike is nothing new. He lost badly twice in the state, and his emissions rules have only made him more vilified.

The problems aren't all regulatory, though.

"There's no question that the declining use of coal for electricity generation nationwide is resulting in less production of coal," said James M. Van Nostrand, director of West Virginia University's Center for Energy and Sustainable Development.

Easily reachable, thick coal seams have been mostly picked clean. Competition is stiff from states such as Illinois and Wyoming, the only state producing more coal than West Virginia.

Alpha also noted that international prices of coal shipped to European power plants are at a four-year low, while prices for coal used to make steel declined more than 20 percent in less than a year. Markets are oversupplied, Alpha said.

Coal's decline was projected before EPA offered the emissions rule. The industry employed about 123,200 coal miners last year, almost 20,000 fewer than in 2010, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration figures.

Next year's projected coal haul for Central Appalachia is supposed to dip to 113.6 million tons nationally after reaching 185 million tons in 2011, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

"I think it would be a real tragedy if working families in West Virginia wrongfully believe that if the EPA regulations stopped, then coal mining would come back," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

The reality is a somber one in southern West Virginia's coalfields, where many residents know no other way to make a living.

David Hodges, assistant fire chief with the Whitesville Fire Department, said many of his department's 30 volunteers received their 60-day possible layoff notice from mines Thursday.

"There's no other industry in southern West Virginia," Hodges said. "We have coal. That is what we have, that's what these guys depend on."

Steve Szkotak in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this story.

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