Arch Coal Inc. may put about 400 Logan County coal miners out of work on New Year's Eve if regulators don't issue the largest mountaintop removal permit in state history, company and union officials said Friday.United Mine Workers members at Arch Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining's Dal-Tex complex were told Friday morning they could be laid off on Dec. 31.Dal-Tex general manager Mark White issued required 60-day layoff notifications to miners and officials from UMW Local 2935."This action has been necessitated by the failure of state and federal agencies to issue new permits in a timely manner," said Steven F. Leer, Arch Coal's president and CEO."Our inability to secure those permits has reached a critical stage," Leer said."We have tried to keep the mine open by mining in increasingly unproductive areas for several months now, which has resulted in losses of approximately $1 million a month," he said. "We cannot continue to incur those losses indefinitely."Dick Kimbler, president of Local 2935, said Friday that he and other miners are writing to West Virginia's congressional delegation to urge them to put pressure on regulators to issue the permit.Arch Coal said in a prepared statement that phased layoffs of 299 UMW members and 88 salaried employees at the Dal-Tex Old Hickory Surface Mine and Monclo Preparation Plant could begin Dec. 31. A written notice to workers, required by federal law, said Arch Coal did not know if the layoffs would be temporary or permanent.Kimbler said the job losses could end up hitting roughly 100 more UMW members who work at related underground mines, as well as contract truck drivers."Eventually, if we don't get a permit, they'll shut the place down," Kimbler said in a phone interview. "Everybody's upset."Bob Phalen, president of UMW District 17 in Charleston, said the union still maintains its middle-of-the-road position on mountaintop removal."We can't afford that type of job loss anywhere in West Virginia, and more particularly in the coalfields," Phalen said."But the union's position on mountaintop removal is the right position. You can't go with either of the extreme positions."One is total abolition, and the other is complete recklessness," Phalen said. "Our position can be adhered to. You can protect the environment and you can continue these jobs."Hobet Mining applied 19 months ago for a permit to expand the Dal-Tex mine near Blair.Originally, the permit would have allowed the company to mine nearly 3,196 acres - about 5 square miles - near historic Blair Mountain. Heavy equipment would have moved east across W.Va. 17 toward Pigeonroost Hollow.According to the permit application, Hobet hopes to mine about 80 million tons of coal under the permit over the next 15 years.Arch Coal makes an average of about $3.90 in profits from every ton of coal it mines, according to financial records distributed to stockholders. That amounts to about $312 million in profits, or about $21 million a year from the Dal-Tex mine alone.In its most recent profit statement filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Arch Coal reported it made about $30 million during the first three quarters of 1998.Gov. Cecil Underwood and coal industry officials have blamed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for Hobet Mining's permit not being issued yet.The state Division of Environmental Protection held a public hearing on a draft mining permit for the Dal-Tex expansion in December 1997.At the time, Hobet Mining agreed to a list of permit changes - such as limiting mining near homes - that DEP and the company said would reduce the harm to nearby communities. The changes reduced the size of the mine to 3,113 acres.Arch Coal did not submit those permit revisions to DEP until April, agency officials said Friday. By law, DEP then had to hold another public hearing in May 1998 on the mining permit.At the same time, EPA objected in June and in August to the state issuing a water pollution permit for the Dal-Tex expansion. That permit is required if Hobet wants to dump millions of tons of excess rock and earth into hollows and streams to form valley fill waste piles.EPA held a public hearing on its objection to that federal Clean Water Act permit a week ago in Logan.Under the law, EPA must at some point after the hearing either reaffirm or withdraw its objection. Federal regulations do not spell out a time line for that action. EPA officials have indicated it could take several months for them to review comments from the Oct. 24 hearing.Meanwhile, the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation has not issued the mining permit for the Dal-Tex extension.DEP officials have been sitting on the permit, at least in part, because of a lawsuit filed by environmentalists, who want to curb mountaintop removal mining. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges DEP cannot issue a mining permit for a mountaintop removal mine until EPA first approves the water pollution permit.EPA objected to the Hobet Mining water permit and water permits for two other mountaintop removal mines because the agency believes the proposals violate the federal Clean Water Act.Federal regulators want coal companies and the state to provide more concrete information about the long-term environmental impact of burying streams under millions of tons of strip mine waste.During the Oct. 24 hearing, EPA Region III Administrator Michael McCabe defended his agency's actions before an angry, pro-coal crowd of more than 500 people."The EPA does not want coal miners to lose their jobs," McCabe said. "We do not want the Appalachian economy to suffer."We want to achieve the best balance between protecting the environment and encouraging this kind of economic growth," he said.On Friday, mining critic Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy said she feels for the families that may suffer if Arch Coal lays off hundreds of workers."Anybody has to have sympathy for workers when they lose their jobs," Rank said. "No one has any intention of putting people out of work. We just want the companies to follow the law so the communities and workers will have something left when the coal is gone."Rank also questioned whether Arch Coal couldn't put the Dal-Tex employees to work doing reclamation on areas that have already been mined until the permit holdup is resolved."I hope Arch Coal is not using their workers as pawns to force the agencies to take a position they're not ready to take because the law doesn't allow them to weaken their regulations," Rank said.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.