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Editorial: Plan for future without coal

Almost daily, stormy news surrounds West Virginia’s coal industry.

Alpha Natural Resources notified 1,100 Mountain State miners of possible layoffs coming in mid-October. Earlier, Patriot Coal warned of 850 layoffs, and performed 75 of them so far. If all occur, several southern coal counties will suffer painfully.

Thousands of miners and many politicians swarmed to Pittsburgh for hearings on proposed federal limits on carbon dioxide pollution. Gov. Tomblin called the cleanup plan “overzealous” and “simply unattainable,” saying it would “devastate our coal mining communities.” United Mine Workers leaders were arrested while protesting the pollution controls. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a federal lawsuit to halt them.

Greenbrier Resort owner Jim Justice let half of his 200 mine permits in five states become idle, and now he is hit by what he calls “an enormous flush of violations,” as well as lingering suits for unpaid coal bills. Last year, Justice warned that “you may be witnessing the death of the coal industry.”

All this ferment indicates a profound change jolting the economic giant that has dominated Appalachia for more than a century.

As reporter Ken Ward Jr. spelled out, various experts contend that southern West Virginia coal is in a downward spiral that will continue, regardless of pollution rules. Good seams are exhausted, and lower-cost fuels are grabbing markets. Dog-eat-dog laws of economics are inflicting their cruel effects.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the Central Appalachian basin (mostly southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky) produced up to 290 million tons of coal per year in the 1990s, but the output dropped to 127 million last year and is projected to sink to 86 million by 2037. This forecast doesn’t consider the effects of pollution controls, which could worsen the decline.

Facts are facts. Coal in the two-state zone already dwindled more than half, and further fading is inescapable. Sadly, mining communities will suffer grim losses unless they change.

West Virginia should launch intelligent planning to cope with this economic transition. Instead of ranting about pollution limits, leaders should start in-depth inquiries to learn the best estimates of what’s coming — and decide the smartest ways to reduce harm.

Charleston strategist Ted Boettner suggests that multitudes of jobless West Virginia miners could be put to work reclaiming abandoned mine sites. He recommended a “G.I. Bill for displaced coal miners.” Plenty of other good ideas could be developed.

Recurring turmoil shows that coal is convulsing. It’s time for practical studies to cope with the economic shift that is in progress.

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