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Is coal on the ropes?

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- It has not been a good year for coal.

First, there was a mild winter. That was followed by an in-state debate over coal truck weights; a federal court decision that may halt scores of mining permit applications; and the closing, at least temporarily, of two Anker mines in Barbour and Upshur counties.

How is coal weathering the storm? A variety of experts shared their thoughts on the state of coal, particularly in the North Central region, with The Exponent Telegram.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association,

a trade group

"Clearly, it's suffering," Raney said of the overall industry.

He pointed to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration as evidence. As of last week, 2002 production was down nearly 8 percent compared to this time last year for West Virginia's 300-plus active mines.

He said North Central production has been particularly hard hit in the short term because of mild weather. Most northern coal is utilized by power plants.

Raney said Sept. 11 added a new spin to the utility side of the coal slump. Many power plants stockpiled coal after the crisis because they were afraid of energy-related terrorism. Because of mild weather, the stockpiles are still holding out and buying has slowed.

Southern coal, which is mostly used for metallurgical industry such as steel mills, is also in a buying slowdown because of a recession-sparked industry stall, he added.

Jack Tietz, president of

Anker Coal Group

of Morgantown

Tietz said other North Central operations, including Anker's Harrison-based mine, are doing fine in spite of this month's layoff of 190 workers in Barbour and Upshur counties.

"We're not going to have any further cuts, but we're also not going to be on any fast track to reopen anything."

He said Anker is working with state development officials and will make a decision on how to deal with the Sentinel Mine in Philippi by mid-June. There is hope it will reopen by fall. Plans for an Upshur mine and proposed power plant there will be reviewed over several months, however.

Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph

Ross is a member of a gubernatorial panel that is collecting input on coal truck weights. He is also a natural resources entrepreneur (including coal) and sits on Senate committees for Natural Resources and Energy, Industry and Mining.

"It's a very serious situation that we're dealing with," Ross said of the controversy around truck weights. "You learn something new in every meeting."

While a Clarksburg input meeting was overwhelmingly against increasing the legal weight limit on trucks for safety reasons, he said southern meetings have favored a raise.

"There's nothing else to do down there," he said of counties whose economies are less diversified than the North Central region.

The arguments for and against weight increases have been varied, pitting safety issues against economic ones.

In the more recent southern meetings, he said southern truckers have recently been saying northern truckers have an advantage because they are doing shorter hauls to power plants. Northern truckers have said illegally operating southern truckers have an unfair advantage because northern law enforcement monitors weight more closely, however.

A committee report is due out this summer and may lead to regulatory legislation.

From another political angle, he believes coal's economic importance may be on the upswing because of the war on terrorism. He said it is an abundant domestic fuel that does not raise radiation contamination issues in the case of terrorist attack.

Larry Alt, permit manager for the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Mining and Reclamation

Alt said continuing legal controversy over valley fills has significantly less effect on northern mines than it does on southern ones. Valley fills are created when mines dump refuse into hollows, sometimes to get it out of the way and sometimes to create a level working area or roads.

The DEP recently indicated about 62 pending mine permit applications may not be approvable. The announcement was based on U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haden's May 8 decision that stopped the U.S. Army Corps from issuing permits to fill U.S. waters for the purpose of waste disposal.

None of the questionable permits are from area counties. Alt said that is because of topography. Southern mountains are steeper and almost all coal permits have a fill permit attached.

However, Alt believes the decision could eventually affect northern mines as it appears to include impoundments, or dams that some operators have traditionally created with rocky refuse and a slurry of finer materials.

Joe Jarvis, data analyst for the state Bureau of Employment Program's Research, Information and Analysis Division

While dropping for many years, Jarvis said coal employment has been holding steady or slightly increasing more recently.

The most recent data, from 2000, shows regional coal-related employment at 2,467 jobs. That is for Barbour, Braxton, Doddridge, Gilmer, Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Taylor, Tucker and Upshur counties. That figure does not take into account the Anker layoffs.

That compares to 6,091 coal jobs in the southern coalfield region in 2000.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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