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W.Va. mining jobs drop again in fourth quarter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New federal data shows that coal-mining employment in West Virginia dropped by more than 1,200 jobs during the final quarter of last year, continuing a trend that industry analysts project is likely to continue.

The number of mining jobs in West Virginia dropped to about 21,400 in the last three months of 2012, according to disclosures that mining companies file with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Strip-mining accounted for nearly two-thirds of the jobs losses, the data shows.

Production from strip-mining in West Virginia during the period was down to 8.1 million tons, half of the total during the fourth quarter of 2008, and the lowest quarterly figure in 25 years.

The latest figures show the continued impacts of coalfield layoffs fueled by a variety of factors, but also indicate mining employment -- while dropping -- remains at levels as high as they were when the Obama administration began a series of regulatory actions to reduce coal's environmental impacts.

Energy experts and industry analysts blame the decline of Appalachian coal in large part on cheap natural gas, competition from other coal basins, and the mining out of the easiest-to-reach reserves.

For years, government and private forecasts have projected a decline in Southern West Virginia coal production, fueled by quality reserves being mined out and increasing pressure from giant surface mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

More recently, advances in natural gas drilling resulted in extremely cheap prices, prompting many power producers to switch fuels. Additionally, new efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce toxic air emissions have forced some utilities to speed up plans to close older, inefficient coal plants that couldn't meet tighter standards aimed at protecting public health.

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


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