- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mining jobs cut

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

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

But Consol Energy’s political problems are not unique in the mining industry, which has suffered under the Obama administration. The Environmental Protection Agency is 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. The 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 near Bickmore, W.Va., in February 2010.

Chief Operating Officer Nicholas J. DeIuliis said the poor economy compounded by legal challenges, particularly a decision issued last month that ordered the federal government to retrace the approval process for mountaintop mining, 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,” Mr. DeIuliis 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 groups active on the legal challenge to which Consol Energy refers.

OVEC Executive Director Janet Keating told The Washington Times that she thinks Consol Energy is using the lawsuit as an excuse to lay off workers, although “we don’t hide the fact we don’t like mountaintop mining,” she said.

“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 … they are issuing these layoff notices as if the world is ending.”

U.S. 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 that 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 1 1/2 years, 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 that 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,” Mr. DeIuliis said.

But OVEC maintains that 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.”

Heard on MSNBC

MSNBC “Morning Joe” regular Donny Deutsch just couldn’t understand what was so wrong with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, bringing up those who opposed outlawing slavery in the context of Republicans opposing the Democrats’ health care bill, as he did on the Senate floor earlier this week.

So, Mr. Deutsch asked Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele about it during a segment on “Morning Joe” Wednesday.

After MSNBC’s Willie Geist and other anchors criticized Mr. Reid for using that language, Mr. Deutsch said, “I’m still trying to understand why the analogies he’s made are wrong. Obviously, the issue here is that any great change throughout history has the naysayers saying ‘it’s not time, it’s not time.’ So why was that an irrelevant analogy?”

Mr. Steele’s response? “I won’t even dignify that with a response. … Next question.”

“Come on. I’m sorry, sir. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s an appropriate comparison to slavery,” the chairman said.

Amanda Carpenter can be reached at acarpenter@washingtontimes.com.

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