“It’s continued good news, but it’s premature to suggest that we’re no longer concerned,” Bissett said about the report that brought smiles to the faces of state coal industry officials who openly fretted about a prolonged decline in Central Appalachia thermal and metallurgical coal output that began several years ago and persisted until just recently.
“We’d like to put several quarters in a row to say a positive trend has developed,” he added. “We’d like to see a good solid year of flat, if not increased, production.”
For now, Bissett will settle for the latest Energy and Environment Cabinet report that showed Kentucky produced almost 20 million tons of coal in the April-June period, or about 500,000 tons more than in the second quarter of 2013.
Perhaps the most interesting informational nugget in the latest report is that coal production in eastern Kentucky surged by 15.1% in Q2, allowing the region ravaged by mine closings and layoffs in recent years to reclaim its traditional lead over the western Kentucky coalfield, part of high-sulfur Illinois Basin.
Eastern Kentucky’s 18 coal-producing counties turned out 10.3 million tons in the second quarter, eclipsing the 9.6 million ton total for western Kentucky’s 11 coal mining counties. Indeed, quarterly production fell by 8.6% in western Kentucky, the sharpest decline in several years. But the downturn likely was due to a blip caused by the several-week Q2 idling of Patriot Coal Co.’s Highland No. 9 underground mine in Union and Henderson counties.
Highland since has resumed full production and that development is expected to aid western Kentucky’s overall output in the third quarter.
For the second consecutive quarter, the report noted, the state’s coal mines increased production in the second quarter. During Q2, Kentucky produced coal from underground mines at a rate of 13.4 million tons per quarter, a decrease of 2.2% from the first quarter of 2014. Underground production accounted for 67% of total production. Overall, 20 Kentucky coal mining counties boosted production during the second quarter.
But while underground production lagged a bit in the quarter, production from surface mines climbed to 6.5 million tons, a 13.2% gain.
In eastern Kentucky, underground and surface mine production increased by 13.2% and 17.2%, to 5.19 and 5.17 million tons, respectively, in Q2. Quarterly surface mine production rose to 1.36 million tons, or 0.4%, in western Kentucky, but underground output dipped to 8.2 million tons, or a 9.9% drop.
Eastern Kentucky’s Pike County, a perennial coal production powerhouse for decades, slipped past western Kentucky’s Union County to corral the top post with 3 million tons, to nearly 2.9 million tons for Union County.
Rounding out the top five coal producing counties in eastern Kentucky were Perry, 1.9 million tons; Harlan, 1.3 million tons; Floyd, 638,000 tons; and Martin, 567,000 tons. Trailing Union County in western Kentucky were Ohio County, 2.1 million tons; Hopkins County, 1.9 million tons; Webster County, 1.6 million tons; and Muhlenberg County, 872,000 tons.
According to preliminary data, Kentucky coal mines reduced on-site employment by 51 workers, or 0.4%, in the second quarter. As of July 1, an estimated 11,715 people were employed at Kentucky coal mines. Kentucky coal mines added 54 miners, 13 underground and 41 surface. However, coal preparation plants decreased employment by 92 people, while on-site office staff was trimmed by 13 people.