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Coal jobs at 14-year high in Appalachia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Despite complaints about the Obama administration's "war on coal," employment in the Appalachian mining industry is at a 14-year high, according to new government data and congressional testimony.

Congressional allies of the coal industry this week intensified their attack on the administration, with three hearings to collect testimony critical of water protection rules and a proposed effort to streamline the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Nationwide, though, the total number of coal jobs is at its highest level since 1996, with 90,354 jobs in 2011, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data.

In Appalachia, the 59,059 jobs reported were the most since 1997, according to the MSHA data. In West Virginia, coal employment reached its highest level since 1992, with 23,353 jobs, the data shows.

Matt Wasson, director of programs for the group Appalachian Voices, said his review of the MSHA data shows the number of coal jobs in the region has increased by 10 percent since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining in June 2009.

"In other words, the idea of a 'permitorium' on coal mine permitting that House Republicans are pushing out is completely and demonstrably false," Wasson said Friday. "The hysterical reaction of coal companies to any and all regulations to protect the safety of workers and communities near their mines is about profits, not jobs."

This week, House Republicans held two hearings aimed at criticizing the OSM, and Senate Democrats held a separate hearing to question the Interior Department's proposal to merge some OSM administrative and mine reclamation functions with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

"The Obama administration has openly sought ways to get rid of the coal industry," said Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican who recently has led the GOP charge against Obama's coal policies.

Among other things, Johnson argued this week that the proposed OSM-BLM merger -- which most observers worry could weaken federal strip-mine enforcement -- "is yet another action by the Obama administration in its ongoing war on American coal."

During a Friday hearing, two former OSM subcontractors -- a coal industry consultant and a longtime industry lawyer -- alleged that agency officials tried to get them to soften the potential job losses projected in a study of the OSM's proposal to rewrite the federal stream "buffer zone" rule.

J. Steven Gardner, the industry consultant, testified that he and a team of outside subcontractors working on the study "unanimously refused to use a 'fabricated' baseline scenario to soften the production loss numbers," Gardner stated in written testimony.

Gardner and the other witness, lawyer Joseph Zaluski, disputed previous testimony in which OSM Director Joe Pizarchik tried to distance agency officials from the job and production analysis.

"We met with them constantly," Zaluski said. "They approved methodologies, especially with regard to production shifts."

Since taking office, the Obama administration has sought to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has expressed serious concerns about the growing body of science linking the practice to a variety of adverse health effects for nearby residents. However, President Obama himself blocked the EPA from implementing tougher new smog standards that would have reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants, and advocates for action on global warming have criticized Obama for doing little on that issue.

At the same time, the United Mine Workers union has praised Obama for putting former union safety director Joe Main in charge of MSHA and increasing enforcement efforts since the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April 2010. GOP leaders in Congress, meanwhile, have blocked new mine-safety legislation and are working against proposed MSHA rules aimed at ending black lung disease.

UMW spokesman Phil Smith said his organization is seeing employment gains by union members working at Northern Appalachian mines that produce coal for power plants and Alabama mines that produce coal for steel mills.

Most mountaintop-removal mines in Central Appalachia are non-union operations, and the UMW has not yet seen job losses at the few large surface mines where it represents workers, Smith said.

"That is because they are working at mines that have current permits," Smith said. "We'll see what happens when those permits need to be extended or new permits obtained."

One West Virginia operator, Alpha Natural Resources, is facing a specific federal court action to block one of its Logan County permits. However, Alpha told industry analysts early this month it's not worried now about any permitting problems.

"We feel pretty good about what we have permitted so far," Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said. "There's nothing in 2012 that is contingent upon any sort of regulatory relaxation or need."

Last month, when the industry won an initial court victory over part of the EPA's permit crackdown, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said, "with this decision, coal communities can get back to the business of producing affordable energy for Americans and put more Americans back to work."

New charts posted on the industry group's website, though, promote the fact that coal mining employment nationwide has increased by 8.5 percent since 2001.

"There is evidence that strictly regulated coal mining is producing more jobs while protecting the environment," West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley told a House Natural Resources subcommittee Friday morning.

However, the current increase in jobs comes amid government projections that coal production in Central Appalachian -- meaning Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky -- will decline rapidly through the rest of the decade.

McGinley told lawmakers that if they're concerned about coalfield jobs, they might spend their time examining why federal and state agencies have not enforced post-mining land development requirements for mountaintop-removal mining operations.

"When Congress enacted [the surface mining law] in 1977, it recognized a tradeoff -- flattened mountain ridges would be replaced by long-term economic development -- creating jobs in coal regions where the boom/bust economic cycle results in high unemployment and few opportunities," McGinley said. "For those who desire jobs in the coalfields, one must ask - why has [the surface mining act's] mandate been almost totally ignored?"

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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