Coal Tattoo

Telling the truth about coal-mining job losses

In response to a previous Coal Tattoo post, there’s been a little bit of discussion about the relative merits of making sure we use accurate data — as accurate and timely as possible — when we talk about what’s going on with our coal industry here in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia.

Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, makes a perfectly valid point when he writes:

Whatever the number is, I think everyone can agree that there are today thousands of miners in West Virginia who can no longer provide for their families the way they once were able to, who are no longer contributing to the economies of their local communities like they were, and who are no longer contributing to the tax bases of their communities and the state like they were. Whether its 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 of them really isn’t the issue. It’s what comes after the jobs are lost that is.

Now, on the one hand, it absolutely does matter if the number is 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 … especially if we have an actual count that was reported to the government by the coal companies themselves. But even the more accurate and timely figure for coal-mining jobs losses — 3,327 last year in West Virginia — is a lot of families. And on a personal level, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 2,000 or 5,000 if your family is one of the ones hit by a layoff.

But in their zealous pursuit of being “Friends of Coal,” some West Virginia political leaders are quick to jump on even the slightest hint of a coal-job loss, blame it on the Obama administration, and fire away with their anti-EPA rhetoric. We saw such an incident easily debunked today in the Gazette’s letters to the editor column by Rob Goodwin of Coal River Mountain Watch. He wrote:

Some West Virginia leaders appear to have slightly backed off on the divisive “War on Coal” or anti-EPA rhetoric, but the new attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, has continued with the dishonest claims perpetuating divisiveness. He falsely claims in a recent stern letter to President Obama that workers were laid off because of Environmental Protection Agency permit delays.

The Feb. 11 letterr signed by Morrisey asks for the nomination of a new EPA administrator more sympathetic to the coal industry.

His only example that actually alleges any real harm on West Virginians has a serious factual flaw. Morrisey sources a news release from Rockefeller, Manchin, Rahall and Tomblin, issued a week before the election, bashing the EPA, stating, “After the EPA delayed issuing a needed 402 permit, Consol issued a WARN Notice tonight notifying [145] workers that they would be laid off.”

Morrisey falsely claimed in his appeal to Obama that 150 coal miners were laid off because of this EPA permit delay; however, Consol Energy stated in its annual report filed with the SEC on Feb. 7 “Consol Energy was able, in this instance, to redeploy these [145] employees to work at another adjacent coal mine property for which a permit was already issued.”

Now, keep in mind that AG Morrisey’s letter is dated Feb. 11, and the SEC filing that Rob Goodwin refers to was filed four days earlier, on Feb. 7.

The Gazette and the State Journal both posted stories about the letter on Feb. 11, and I did mentioned that coverage in a Coal Tattoo news roundup, but none of that coverage mentioned the clear divergence between what Morrisey said and what the facts of the incident showed. So everyone can be clear, here’s the entire passage from CONSOL’s annual report:

Thus far, CONSOL Energy subsidiaries have been able to continue operating their existing mines. However, CONSOL Energy was affected by a delay in permitting in 2012 for a new coal mine in Mingo County, WV, which resulted in a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) notice being issued for employees scheduled to begin work on the new mine. Since 2007, CONSOL Energy has undertaken permitting activities to permit a new surface mine with a post mine land use plan for a five mile stretch of connecting highway that is part of the King Coal Highway corridor. CONSOL of Kentucky entered into a Memorandum of Understanding in conjunction with the Federal Department of Highways Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to coordinate the design of the valley fills to serve as highway infrastructure. However, the EPA objected to CONSOL Energy’s water discharge permit on the grounds of their April 2010 Appalachian guidance, which resulted in CONSOL Energy’s issuance of a WARN notice on October 30, 2012 for 145 employees who were planned to work at the new coal mine. CONSOL Energy was able, in this instance, to redeploy these employees to work at another adjacent coal mine property for which a permit was already issued. However, there is no assurance that the permit for a new coal mine will be issued, or that CONSOL Energy would be able to re-deploy its employees under future similar circumstances.

It’s worth remembering that the original WARN notice here was issued by CONSOL practically on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, when the coal industry was doing its best to scare coalfield voters into putting President Obama out of the White House. West Virginia political leaders were happy to join in the fun, issuing statements blasting Obama and EPA. Even at the time, though, CONSOL was telling the public and its investors:

CONSOL Energy is appreciative of the efforts of the state of West Virginia to issue all the required permits under their jurisdiction and remains optimistic that as the company continues to work with federal, state, and local officials, it will be ultimately successful in securing the approvals necessary to enable jobs and economic development for the mine and highway project in Mingo County and the state.

And just so there’s no confusion: What was going on here was that CONSOL’s Miller Creek Mine was about finished with the coal it was scheduled to mine, and the company planned to move workers from that operation to the new Buffalo Mine, which was part of the King Coal Highway project. So the permit issues with Buffalo were what brought the layoff threat for the Miller Creek miners. But as CONSOL said later in its annual report, it was able to transfer those workers to other operations, avoiding any layoffs.

So let’s go back to that comment that the UMWA’s Phil Smith made on Coal Tattoo earlier, or at least to this part of it:

Whether its 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 of them really isn’t the issue. It’s what comes after the jobs are lost that is.

Indeed … and that makes one wonder … if West Virginia political leaders were so concerned about jobs, why aren’t they asking tougher questions about proposals like the King Coal Highway, trying to get to the bottom of inconsistencies in the stories being told by those who insist this project will be such a big job creator for a post-coal Southern West Virginia economy?

Contrary to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s efforts to convince us that another big coal boom is just around the corner, his own Revenue Department said just the other day:

“The foreign markets are going to be erratic, there’s going to be good years and bad years for the foreign markets, whereas the domestic markets are more stable,” said Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow. “Overall, the numbers are negative; we see coal production decreasing in West Virginia.”

“It’s likely to go lower,” Muchow said of mining employment. “But the decrease we see in 2013 is likely less than it was in 2012.”

West Virginia’s coal economy remains in decline … while a total collapse may not be coming tomorrow, why don’t we have a plan for what comes next?