Editorial: Coal’s sad decline

Erroneous news reports spread through West Virginia media last month saying the Mountain State’s number of active coal mines had dropped by half — from 184 in 2012 to 96 this year. However, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training says 139 West Virginia mines reported production in August.

Nonetheless, a drop from 184 to 139 working mines is dismal, showing the relentless retreat of the industry in the Central Appalachian coalfield. Coal has declined greatly since the postwar era, when thousands of West Virginia mines employed 125,000 diggers.

“Those are direct jobs, the primary good-paying jobs,” state Coal Association President Bill Raney told MetroNews. “That’s devastating when you think we’re down to about 17,000 to 18,000 people digging coal today.” (However, his comment apparently didn’t include large numbers who work for independent mining contractors instead of mine owners.)

Most of the recent loss occurred in southern counties, while northern West Virginia’s mines remain stable, he said.

Official annual reports of the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training (wvminesafety.org) say the state had 225 producing mines at the end of 2007 — and 219 at the end of 2010 — and 184 at the end of 2012 — and 139 in August of this year. The tally is counted by permits.

The state figures indicate that West Virginia has lost 80 mines in the past four years.

It’s clear that southern West Virginia is suffering an unstoppable dwindling of King Coal. It’s happening because thick, easy-to-reach seams are gone, and only difficult seams remain. It’s happening because cheap western coal and booming Marcellus gas are grabbing most markets. It’s harder for Appalachia to compete. Mine closures inflict misery on coal-dependent communities. U.S. analysts predict that the decline will continue ruthlessly.

The Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall university predicts that West Virginia coal production will fall 10 percent by 2020, then decline at a slower rate.

Most West Virginia politicians and industry leaders try to blame federal pollution controls for this loss — but pollution is just part of the picture.

State Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, appointed a Senate task force named SCORE (Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy) to study the economic change and plan ways to adapt. Similarly, a group called What’s Next, West Virginia? is mapping the transition.

History may record the start of the 21st century as a period when southern West Virginia’s coal industry sank drastically, after a century of supremacy. The same pattern occurred in Wales and other former coal regions. It is past time for the state to prepare intelligently for the transformation.

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