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Industry slump detailed at Bluefield coal forum

Bluefield Daily Telegraph photo by Bill Archer West Virginia Speaker of the House, Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, left and Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer are shown here prior to speaking at the West Virginia Coal Forum in Bluefield.
Bluefield Daily Telegraph photo by Bill Archer
West Virginia Speaker of the House, Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, left and Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer are shown here prior to speaking at the West Virginia Coal Forum in Bluefield.

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — The coal industry has a long history of surviving dramatic cycles of good times and bad, but most people familiar with the coal industry recognize the current slump as being one of most challenging in the history of the West Virginia coalfields.

“We’re getting lip service from the government,” Fred Tucker, 74, a retired United Mine Workers of America coal miner said. Tucker and Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association are co-chairs of the West Virginia Coal Forum, an agency that the state legislature established in 1986 during the height of the national acid rain controversy.

“This is not the first time we’ve had a downturn in the coal industry,” Tucker said. “If we get past this time, there will be another one.”

Almost everyone who spoke during the three-hour-long forum on Thursday at the Quality Hotel & Conference Center in Bluefield provided different figures related to the depths of the current slump. Hamilton said that 5,000 to 6,000 coal miners in West Virginia have been laid off or have been notified that their mines are about to be closed. Tucker estimated the total to be 3,500 coal miner jobs lost in the past 24 months, but just about everyone had an estimate.

Economist John Deskins, Ph.D., of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and economic Research characterized the present situation as “a perfect storm,” with the combination of coal reserves in the southern West Virginia coalfields being harder and more expensive to mine; the cost of natural gas is very low and competitive with thermal coal prices; export coal business has been on the decline with the exception of 2012; and the federal environmental regulatory policy promotes renewable resources and not fossil fuels.

“Coal has suffered dramatically in recent years,” Deskins, a Buchanan County, Va., native said. He explained that in 2008, West Virginia coal production exceeded 150 million tons, but that in seven years, that total has dropped to about 105 million tons. “That’s a 34 percent drop in production in West Virginia.” He said that the decline in production in the rest of the U.S., has only been 16 percent. “West Virginia and Kentucky have been the worse,” he said.

A crowd of about 50 to 60 people attended the forum. Deskins explained that while southern West Virginia coal is “cleaner and burns harder” than any other coal in the state, southern West Virginia coal operations have suffered the worst. “Literally, all of the decline has come from the southern West Virginia coalfields…

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