Just before the final hearings concluded in Pittsburgh on August 1, Alpha Natural Resources expressed its opinion and issued notices to 1,100 miners in five southern West Virginia counties that they could possibly be laid off if their operations are idled (See News, p. 4). The company cited several reasons for its decision and most of them were attributed to actions taken by the EPA.

For many years, even before President Obama launched his “war on coal,” Central Appalachian operators have struggled to make ends meet. The region has some of the highest quality thermal coals, which command a premium price for compliance quality, but minable reserves have been depleting while mining costs have increased. Add to that the permitting headaches and the stigma attached to mountaintop mining, and it seemed only a matter of time before many of the mines would bite the bullet. Take away the market for the coal, and the Obama EPA has simply made Alpha’s difficult decision easier to justify.

Alpha listed 11 mining operations (and prep plants) in Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, Mingo and Raleigh counties. For readers unfamiliar with southern West Virginia, most of the mines are within a reasonable driving distance of Charleston, the capitol of West Virginia. All of them are surface mines that produce roughly 400,000 tons to 1 million tons of coal per year. Many of them were former Massey Energy properties.

Despite the lack of political will among West Virginia’s politicians, the state of West Virginia filed a lawsuit against the EPA to block the proposed rule. Other states have since joined the suit, including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming. Interestingly, there are a few key states missing from the list, namely Illinois, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas.

During mid-July, Microsoft slashed 18,000 jobs. Will the world notice if 1,100 coal miners in West Virginia lose their jobs? Poverty in rural America is as big of a problem as it is in urban centers. Unlike their urban counterparts, these well-paying jobs are not shifting. They are drying up. Considering miners’ immediate families, that number quickly grows to 5,000 to 10,000 people. Then there is a regional economy that depends on those families. Alpha’s announcement could directly affect as many as 70,000 people in the Mountain State. That’s tragic.

Need a better perspective? The Awards column (See Elk Run Coal Wins Good Neighbor Award, p. 18) details what Alpha’s 535 employees at Elk Run did for the surrounding communities in Boone County, West Virginia. The story was cut short because the list of what they did for the local communities goes on and on. That’s the caliber of people that will hit the streets this fall if the EPA is allowed to continue on its current path.

Steve Fiscor