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‘Coal has to be mined’

Zachary Conrad would gladly take any coal-mining job in West Virginia, even at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, where an explosion claimed the lives of 12 miners this month.

“I’ve got a lot of bills I need to pay off,” said the unemployed 22-year old from Braxton County. “Nine- and 10-dollar an hour jobs just don’t do it.”

It’s the desire for work and the need for good-paying jobs that company officials hope will keep recruiting up in the wake of Sago and now following two deaths at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 in Melville.

“Coal has to be mined,” said Terry Tolley, safety manager for Catenary Coal in Eskdale.

West Virginia coal industry officials project they will need 5,000 to 7,000 more miners in the next decade to keep up with demand and a wave of retirements. The average age of a Mountain State coal miner is 55, according to Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

The industry is in a boom time now and has the opportunity to sell more coal at a higher price than in the past — if it can find the manpower to mine it.

West Virginia had 1,227 more coal miners last year than in 2004, according to data from the state’s Bureau of Employment Programs. The state gained 12 mines in 2004, up from 249 in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. Those gains were in surface mines.

Meanwhile, the price of West Virginia coal has increased from $31 to $58.25 for a short ton from January 2003 up to this past Friday. U.S. coal production is projected to grow by 3.9 percent this year and remain at about that level in 2007, according to the federal government’s Energy Information Administration.

The U.S. Department of Labor awarded $3 million last month to the West Virginia University Mining Extension Service, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and the state Coal Association to pay for two mine-training and placement centers in West Virginia: one in the north, the other in the south.

The Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies is running the program that gives students a mix of traditional classroom instruction and hands-on experience. Students will learn about longwall mining, mine gases, roof control, haulage, ventilation and tour mines, said Jim Dean, director of WVU’s Mining Extension Service.

Students will receive 160 hours of underground mine training and 40 hours of surface mining training. West Virginia requires beginning miners to have 80 hours of underground training and 40 hours of surface training. Federal law requires only 40 hours of underground training and 24 of surface.

Company representatives have told Dean that the 80-hour course wasn’t meeting their needs. The new course will help give the new miners more training in an industry that hasn’t had to recruit people for a while.

The academy started its first class on Jan. 3, the day after the Sago disaster. Eighteen people showed up, and 17 are still in the program, Dean said. One man had to drop out because his daughter was in the hospital.

The students had a lot of questions about what happened at Sago, Dean said, but none was deterred from joining the industry because of it.

“People still want in the class,” he said. About 10 people have already signed up for the next session that starts in March.

Fairmont State Community and Technical College is also offering training programs for underground miners. Paul Schreffler, the school’s director of economic development and workforce education, anticipated some drop-off in the number of enrollees after Sago.

But the students have said they’re staying because it’s a path to a decent job and good standard of living, he said.

“West Virginians are resilient people and they know what the challenges are and what the risks are,” Schreffler said. “That’s part of any job, not just coal mining.”

Gary Tincher, owner of a mine training program in Chelyan, said the Sago incident has shown that “anything can happen at any time and you’ve got to be prepared for it,’ he said.

“I think this will open their [new miners] eyes up and see, ‘hey, this is not only a job, it’s a dangerous occupation,’” he said. “In my classes, we try to go over everything humanly possible that could happen underground. But it’s impossible. We cover everything we can, but there’s always room for improvement.”

The Sago and Alma No. 1 incidents may deter some students from entering the mines if they’re undecided about the career, or are doing it because their parents are telling them to get a job, he said. Others, whose families have been coal miners or those who need a good-paying jobs won’t be deterred.

Industry officials tout the record low number of mining deaths. In 2005, 22 coal miners died on the job in the United States and three miners died in West Virginia.

Disasters increase the challenges for hiring, said Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers of America.

But “these are still good jobs,” he said. “There’s no question there is an element of uncertainty associated with that. We believe that element can be controlled.”

Last year, West Virginia coal miners earned an average of $64,000 a year, more than double the average wage of someone working in the private sector, according to West Virginia Bureau of Employment Programs data.

Some industry officials think it’s still too early to tell whether the Sago and Aracoma incidents will affect the number of miners entering the industry.

CONSOL Energy hasn’t seen a drop-off in applications or had difficulty finding people to work in its mines since Sago, said Thomas Hoffman, vice president of investor and public relations. It’s still too soon to tell how the Aracoma incident will affect recruiting.

The Pittsburgh-based company was West Virginia’s second-largest coal producer in 2004, behind Massey Energy Co., according to the state Coal Association.

“We’ve been able to get the people we need even though accidents in the coal industry aren’t something that’s unknown to most people,” he said. “We’re able to get the people we want.”

The company’s recruiting efforts will go on for years, despite industry accidents.

“This is not going to be the kind of thing you do intensely for a month and you’re done,” Hoffman said.

“[It] will be with us for five, six, seven years. [It’s] not just taking applications and interviewing people, but working with schools to make sure all of these educational institutions know what we’re looking for.”

To contact the Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies, call (304) 293-4211.

To contact the Fairmont State Center for Workforce Education, call (304) 367-4920.

To contact staff writer Jennifer Ginsberg, use e-mail or call 348-5195.


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