The Washington Times - December 9, 2009, 01:44PM

Chalk up another 500 to the list of jobs President Obama will need to create or save.

A Pittsburgh-based coal company, CONSOL Energy, will lay off nearly 500 of its West Virginia workers next year and its CEO blames environmentalists dead-set against mountaintop mining who have waged “nuisance” lawsuits for the job loss.


But CONSOL Energy’s political problems are not unique to the mining industry, which has suffered under the Obama Administration. The Environmental Protection Agency is already holding 79 surface mining permits in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. The EPA says these permits could violate the Clean Water Act and warrant “enhanced” review. And, agency went even further in October, announcing plans to revoke a permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia.

The latest setback for the coal industry was announced on Tuesday when CONSOL Energy said close to 500 workers would lose jobs at their Fola Operations location near Bickmore, West Virginia in February 2010.

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CEO Nicholas J. DeIuliis said the poor economy compounded by legal challenges by environmental activists forced CONSOL to slash jobs.

“It is challenging enough to operate our coal and gas assets in the current economic downturn without having to contend with a constant stream of activism in rehashing and reinterpreting permit applications that have already been approved or in the inequitable oversight of our operations,” he said in a statement. “Customers will grow reluctant to deal with energy producers they perceive are unable to guarantee a reliable supply due to regulatory uncertainty. It inhibits the ability to remain competitive.”

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Coal River Mountain Watch were the various groups active on the legal challenge CONSOL Energy refers.

OVEC’s Executive Director Janet Keating told the Washington Times she believes CONSOL Energy is using the lawsuit as an excuse to layoff workers, although she says “we don’t hide the fact we don’t like mountaintop mining.”

“The price of coal has dropped in half and I think we are a convenient target, a convenient scapegoat,” she said.

“This ruling does not even go into effect for 60 more days so doesn’t that tell you something?” Ms. Keating added. “Suddenly, all the sudden they are issuing these layoff notices as if the world is ending.”

District Judge Robert C. Chambers handed down the ruling in question on Nov. 24. He said the Army Corps of Engineers violated the law by not giving the public enough information during the public comment period for permits issued by the government, although he wrote the error “did not stem from any wrong-doing on the part of the mining companies.”

Even though the court said not enough information was given to the public, the permit application process for the Fola mine consumed nearly a year and a half, according to court papers. But, environmentalists say they weren’t given the enough specific information during the 30-day public comment period. “How can we make substantial comment if they only give us general information?” Ms. Keating asked.

Judge Chambers said requiring the mining companies to go back through the public approval process would provide the public “meaningful opportunity” to weigh in on the permits as well as “force the Corps to reconsider these permits, possibly with new information.”

“To put it into human terms, we are talking about the jobs of nearly 500 of our employees at the Fola Operations, and the impact such legal interpretations will have on their quality of life and that of their families,” CONSOL CEO Mr. DeIuliis said.

But OVEC maintains CONSOL Energy is putting blame in the wrong place.

“We’re in a recession right now and utilities are using less coal and using more natural gas,” Ms. Keating said. “The manufacturing sector isn’t using the same levels of coal so there are these stockpiles and they are going to wait until the price of coal goes up.”