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Coal mine employment down, 'don’t need to panic'

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Coal mine employment in West Virginia dropped in the last months of 2012 as a flurry of factors continues to pressure the industry.

West Virginia mining jobs were down to 21,400 in the fourth quarter — a loss of about 1,200 jobs, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data. Most of the losses occurred from surface mining operations where production has been on the decline in recent years.

Though the fourth quarter loss represents far less than one percent of those employed in West Virginia, the jobs are among the state's most well-compensated and impacts on revenue and surrounding businesses are significant.

"This past Christmas, the Citizens of Coal and the Friends and Family of Coal put together a fundraiser and were able to, thank God, be able to raise $30,000 to feed 200 coal mining families whose unemployment benefits had expired and we weren't able to reach all of them," said Roger Horton, president of the Citizens for Coal.

Horton said the industry is deeply connected to the communities where it operates. Remove coal and communities, particularly in Southern West Virginia where layoffs strike most often, can begin a snowball effect of job loss and declining revenues.

The reasons for coal's stress are many and varied. The industry often lists a number of factors — thinning coal seams in Appalachia, low natural prices, competition from coal in other regions, warmer winters or summers. Among the most fought over are the effects of the Obama administration.

Coal miners and operators across the state say the Environmental Protection Agency is holding up what could be an increase in coal mining jobs.

"It's going to be getting tougher and tougher for the coal industry to mine coal because this administration is still not releasing permits on the scale large enough for us to raise the employment bar," Horton said. "They've also dedicated themselves to stopping as much as they can the exportation of coal. … The market demands coal is going to be mined. One way or another we're going to figure out to do it."

Horton, however, remains optimistic about the coal industry, even it will be a "tough row to hoe."  

"We, the Citizens of Coal are standing behind the miners of the entire country and want them to know that together we can overcome this and we don't need to panic," Horton said. "We need to work harder than ever to educate this country about the importance of coal and its importance to national security."

Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the data is not necessarily a harbinger of further declines in coal mining jobs. The Energy Information Administration, he points out, does predict a decline in coal production, but another factor is involved.

"I think the jury is still out whether this is a structural decline in coal employment or whether it's more reflective of the boom and bust nature of the industry," Boettner said. "In the long run, there's going to be a large decline in coal production, but at the same time there's going to be a large decrease in productivity."

A decrease in productivity means more miners to bring out the same amount of coal, though that also increases the cost of that coal.

Boettner said 2012 "was a terrible year for West Virginia in terms of job growth. Whether or not the drop in fourth quarter coal mine employment is a sign of the future or part of a short-term trend, he said, would remain to be seen.