CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources announced late Friday that it plans to idle several Appalachian coal mines and reduce work schedules at others, citing reduced coal demand as more electricity utilities move toward using natural gas.
The company said many of the affected workers would be able to transfer to other Alpha operations but that about 320 workers would be displaced "within the next few weeks."
The announcement is the second such move by a major coal producer this week, coming just one day after Patriot Coal said it was closing its Big Mountain complex in Boone County.
"Several mines are encountering weak demand for their products," said Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield. "We examined all options, but in the end these operations had to do what was necessary to preserve a sustainable business plan in a challenging environment."
Appalachian coal producers are facing a tough market, with falling natural gas prices, declining high-quality reserves, and increased limits on toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Competition from other basins, including Wyoming and Illinois, is also affecting mines in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Energy projected steeper production declines to come, with Central Appalachian coal output estimated to drop by 54 percent between 2011 and 2035.
Local business and political leaders have focused their attention on criticizing the Obama administration's environmental agenda related to coal, but have said little about planning for an economic transition if other factors continue to drive regional production and jobs down.