- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

WAYNESBURG, Pa. (AP) - Eight years ago, Scott Mathieson was working as a mining contractor in Cambria County when he heard of job opportunities in the thick-seamed coal mines of Greene County. The ex-Marine Corps officer had spent almost 10 years with Allegheny Belting Inc., building his resume by vulcanizing conveyor belts and realigning chutes for the mines.

By May 2008, Mathieson had scored an interview at Emerald Mine near Waynesburg, Greene County, and moved from his home in Summerhill to begin work.

“It takes a lot time to get into a coal mine,” said Mr. Mathieson. “It’s not something you walk right into.”

Next year, he will be walking out.

Most in the county, Mathieson included, were unsurprised when the news came in August that Virginia-based coal giant Alpha Natural Resources planned to wind down and ultimately close Emerald, which has been nearing the end of its coal reserves.

But the expected layoff of more than 500 miners comes at a time of uncertainty for those who hope to stay in the coal industry. It also comes as dozens of workers remain unemployed one year after what’s considered the first big coal-related layoff here: the closure of Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station, an expansive 1,710-megawatt landmark on the Monongahela River that had burned coal to produce electricity since 1969.

“That was a big hit for the county,” Greene County Commissioner Blair Zimmerman said.

“This,” he said, referring to Emerald Mine, “will be the second.”

Unanswered questions

While coal languishes in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, such talk of layoffs is unusual for Greene County. With eight active underground mines, the county provided 37 million tons of coal - more than the 29 other coal-producing counties in Pennsylvania combined- and employed nearly 4,000 workers, or 55 percent of the state’s miners, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

But the sheer cost of complying with, primarily, a host of new air emission standards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has led to an industry-wide hesitancy to keep investing in mines and power plants alike, said John Pippy, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, a Harrisburg-based trade group.

While the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, which has supplied energy markets with cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas, has given coal competition, Pippy said the coal industry’s biggest long-term threat remains “the uncertainty associated with the EPA regulations.”

“It seems like we as a nation, we are seeing unilateral economic disarmament, and we are hurting ourselves without having a long-term (energy) strategy,” Pippy said.

In comments earlier this month on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Pippy’s organization pointed to at least eight power plants in Pennsylvania that have been deactivated or designated for retirements “on account of pending air quality rules.” The group equated those closures to about 5,000 megawatts that would be consequently lost on an electrical grid that last winter came within 1,000 megawatts of shutting down.

It was pressure and uncertainty from these rules that led to the shuttering of the Hatfield, along with Mitchell Power Station in Washington County, the plant’s operator, Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., said. The two plants’ combined capacity of 2,080 megawatts represented 10 percent of the company’s total capacity. But they represented 30 percent of the estimated $925 million of power plant upgrades system-wide to meet the EPA’s air quality standards regulating mercury and other pollutants.

“It had to have been strictly cha-ching, cha-ching,” Zimmerman said. “It was still in compliance, and they shut it down.”

The plant closures affected 380 people total, according to FirstEnergy’s count. Of those, 47 workers from both Hatfield and Mitchell are still looking for work, and the company is working with union officials to find positions.

The other 333 have voluntarily retired or moved into “positions for which they were already qualified” in other areas of the company and are now working at other power stations or utility companies, said Stephanie Walton, company spokeswoman.

Three of those workers met up recently at a modest one-story house dwarfed by its dormant next-door neighbor: Hatfield Power Plant.

“It’s just depressing to see it now,” said Andy Sinclair, a former instrument technician at Hatfield who purchased his home when he began work at the power plant in 2008.

Sinclair, who put in 10 years at Mitchell before transferring to Hatfield, now works as a meter reader for FirstEnergy’s West Penn Power utility.

“It was a hell of a pay cut, and plus I hate going in people’s yards,” he said of the new job.

The other two men, Butch DiBease and Derek Santini, former mechanics, took positions at a FirstEnergy storeroom in Connellsville. But DiBease only took the job to satisfy the final three months needed for retirement. Retired since May, DiBease is dusting off his resume and getting ready to apply for positions at other, non-FirstEnergy power plants.

“Fifty-five’s too young to retire,” he said. “I’m surviving, but I wouldn’t say I’m living.”

The men spoke proudly of their work at Hatfield and have been vocal in their frustrations.

In October, Sinclair played host to a protest at his house for a dozen members of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 102 to mark the one-year anniversary of the shutdown. A painted wooden sign stuck in his front yard reads: “FirstEnergy: First for Greed, Last for Community.”

Sticking it out

The questions that surround the closing of Emerald Mine have a similar ring: Where will the miners go?

Union officials hope the Emerald miners will have the option to transfer to nearby Cumberland Mine, which has plenty of reserves and is expanding. Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs for the United Mine Workers of America, said some miners have already transferred and begun work, using the miner’s contractual right to transfer to another mine within the same company when one mine shuts down.

Smith acknowledged that Cumberland doesn’t have the jobs available to take all the miners today, “but the mine isn’t closing today.” The union is relying on a certain number of Cumberland miners to retire by the end of the year as the union’s “30 and out” pension plan ends, which allows miners who have 30 years of work to retire at any age.

“The question becomes what the situation looks like in Cumberland next year,” Smith said. “We don’t have those questions answered yet.”

Despite the risk, Mathieson said he’s “sticking it out” until Emerald fully closes because that’s what he’s contractually obligated to do. He criticized miners who “jumped ship” and have taken jobs at Cumberland, but he understands that “a lot of guys got bills to pay, and when it comes down to it, they’re gonna look out for themselves.”

“They keep saying that (Cumberland Mine is) going to take as many as they can, but how many is ‘as many as they can?’” Mathieson said. “I don’t care where I work. I want to try to keep my job. But is that going to happen? Am I going to get taken? I don’t know.”

Zimmerman, who retired from Cumberland four years ago, said there is no way all the miners could transfer.

“Some of those younger guys might go back to school and look for a different career. Some, like an electrician or welder, might work for the gas industry. Some of them will say, ‘I’ve had enough of this coal industry. I’m getting out,’” Zimmerman said.

Either way, the closing of Emerald spells trouble. Coal mining alone supplies about 30 percent of the county’s tax base, and Emerald accounted for 10 percent of the county’s coal production in 2013, according to the county commissioner’s office.

Finding optimism

An expanding demand for coal overseas - and for skills most coal miners have mastered - keep up the industry’s spirits. Though China’s historic agreement last month with the United States would aim to cut back on coal use, developing countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are not likely to buck burning coal, Pippy said.

“The world needs low-cost reliable energy,” he said. “That’s where the optimism is. The rest of the world will be embracing coal as the No. 1 source of energy.”

Domestically, he said, laid-off miners’ skill set can “transfer very well to any kind of industrial job, particularly in the Marcellus. Those are skill sets that built America.”

For Clemmy Allen, executive director of the UMWA Career Centers Inc., putting laid-off miners back to work has been a task of increasing urgency. The group has a field office in Beckley, W.Va., where Allen said Alpha’s layoffs of a staggering 1,100 miners resembles an “economic hurricane.”

Any worker with experience operating the longwall machines, shuttle cars or heavy equipment could pick up a gas industry job “almost immediately,” he said.

The gas industry in West Virginia is “one of the quickest ways we’re getting them into work,” he said. “So we’ve been trying to get people into training programs that would help them move into that area.”

The use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to pull natural gas from shale formations - and the need to transport millions of gallons of water to frack each well - has put demand for truck drivers, welders and diesel mechanics.

“Laid off miners are a workforce-ready group of people,” he said. “Most of those folks have done OK if they have someone to tutor them through the system.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com


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