Last updated: July 17. 2013 3:34PM - 872 Views
Fred Pace
Heartland News Service

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Chad Abshire

Staff Writer

WILLIAMSON — The damage done to Mingo County with Alpha Natural Resources’ announcement yesterday of 1,200 layoffs, 400 of them being Appalachian coal miners, was signficiant.

While some who were laid off were reassigned or would replace outside contractors, a total of 80 miners in the Mountain State lost their jobs, with nearly half of them, 36 to be exact, being from Mingo County, according to West Virginia Delegate Justin Marcum who spoke with the Daily News after he spoke with Sarah Smith, the External Affairs Officer for Alpha.

These 36 laid-off workers, Marcum said, would be given 60 days of salary and benefits, and be provided assistance with their unemployment filing through Workforce West Virginia. They, however, would not be reassigned to other mines or remain behind for reclamation purposes.

Despite the total number of layoffs reaching 1,200, not all of them were immediate. Marcum said that some of the layoffs would not take place until Jan. 1, 2013. However, all workers who were or will be laid off, have already been given their respective notifications.

“My heart goes out to all the miners and their families during these trying times,” Marcum said. “I will continue to fight for coal mining jobs within the State of West Virginia.”

On Tuesday, Virginia-based Alpha announced it was immediately closing eight mines — four in West Virginia, three in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania. The company is cutting its production by 16 million tons and is shifting its focus from supplying U.S. power plants to supplying power plants and steel mills overseas.

Alpha Spokesman Ted Pile said the affected West Virginia operations were the Alloy deep mine near Powellton, the Alloy surface mine near Boomer, the Premium highwall mine near Gilbert and the White Flame Surface Mine near Wharncliffe.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) released a statement regarding the layoffs:

“First, my heart goes out to the miners who lost their jobs and the families that depended on those jobs, and to all the Americans who will pay higher energy prices because this country lacks an energy policy that fully uses all of our domestic resources to benefit our great country.

“Companies like Alpha have ridden ups and downs of the market for many years - but they can’t be expected to fight their own government, too. The difference between those times and now is that companies didn’t have to deal with the overreaching of an EPA that makes it impossible to build any certainty into the future.

“Especially at a time when our economy is so fragile and good-paying jobs are hard to come by, it’s clear that our federal government needs to start working with us and not against us. There’s a balance to be found between the environment and the economy and the EPA has worked very hard to avoid finding that balance.”

Alpha said about 40 percent of its production cuts will come from high-cost Eastern mines, while about half will occur in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, the largest coal-producing region in the U.S.

Yesterday, Alpha said it took 2 million tons out of production with the initial idlings. While Pile would not say where the next layoffs would occur, he said “it’s obvious more is to come.”

Another 800 positions would have to be eliminated in the coming months, Pile said, and there would likely be fewer reassignment opportunities or open positions as time goes on.

“Having to send home good, hard-working men and women is only the option of last resort,” he said. “But we are unfortunately dealing with an entirely new reality.”

He said each decision must make sense for the long-term health of the company and must honor supply contracts already in place.

“We are looking at all of our operations. What are the costs? What are the savings? What are the risks or opportunities in light of the changes in the market?” he said.

The answers to those questions will determine which ones are most cost-efficient, provide better-quality coal at a realistic price and can be more flexible with customer demands.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said more layoffs in Appalachia are likely through the end of the year and into the first quarter as other companies struggle with the loss of traditional customers such as power plants.

As federal air pollution regulations tighten, utilities are increasingly shifting to natural gas and closing old, inefficient plants.

It’s likely that other companies will follow Alpha’s lead and look to the export market in the future, Hamilton said. West Virginia has historically accounted for about half of U.S. coal exports.

Chief Executive Officer Kevin Crutchfield said the shutdowns and layoffs were a necessary part of ensuring Alpha survives in what has become a difficult U.S. market, where coal companies face a dual challenge: Power plants shifting to cheap, abundant natural gas, while companies like his face “a regulatory environment that’s aggressively aimed at constraining the use of coal.”

In all, the layoffs amount to nearly a tenth of Alpha’s 13,000-person workforce.

The Associated Press contibuted to this article.

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