CHARLESTON – Consol Energy's announcement of nearly 500 impending layoffs likely will result in a long and troubling domino effect.
On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh-based company gave notice that it could lay off 482 workers and stop mountaintop mining at two Clay County facilities -- Little Eagle Coal Co. and Fola Coal Co.
Company and local officials were quick to point fingers at environmentalists who successfully have sued to block water quality permits to allow mountaintop mining at one of the sites. In November, U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers suspended Fola's permit for the Ike Fork portions of its operations. The order is effective Jan. 23.
Chambers ruled that public notices for permits failed to provide a clear understanding of the nature and magnitude of the mines or allow the public to be involved sufficiently in the permitting process. He ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to correct the problem with the permits, though he allowed both companies to continue "limited" mining for 60 days.
In a statement, Consol COO Nicholas DeIuliss blamed the shutdown on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition's push to fight permits granted under the federal Clean Water Act.
"It is unfortunate that, at a time when reliable and affordable energy is so desperately needed to reinvigorate our economy, that the nation's energy industries are coming under repeated assault from nuisance lawsuits and appeals of environmental regulations," DeIuliis said. "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.
"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.
"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."
Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said Consol's announcement is "a clear example of the devastation that ongoing environmental actions will have on workers and communities across our state."
"The 'war on coal/domestic energy' that is being waged by the Obama Administration, Congress, Robert Kennedy Jr., Al Gore, environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities is hitting home in West Virginia," Roberts said. "In Clay County alone, by some estimates the closure of this mine will cut school funding by up to 25 percent....and dramatically increase unemployment there."
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called Consol's announcement a "sobering reminder" of the realities of the coal industry.
"Though today's sad news stems from action in our courts, we know that the practical differences between delays at the hand of the courts or at the hands of the EPA are few and far between," she said in a statement. "While some would have us believe that the EPA and government regulators are simply 'doing their job,' it is becoming quite clear that the combined impact of litigation and regulatory uncertainty poses a severe threat to the economic climate of our state."
The Fola mine is Clay County's largest private employer. Officials say the taxes on coal provide the "vast majority" of the county's local revenue. Last year, Clay County had nearly 200 coal miners, according to state date. And almost all of them worked at the Consol operations.
Jerry Linkinoggor, president of the Clay County Commission, told the Charleston Daily Mail that he expects Consol's announcement will mean further layoffs. Clay County already has one of the state's highest employment rates at 14.6 percent.
"We will lose jobs in county government due to loss in coal severance," he told the paper.
The EPA has a lock on 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 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 against Consol.
OVEC Executive Director Janet Keating told the Washington Times she thinks Consol is using the lawsuit as an excuse to layoff workers, but she admitted "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 told the Times. "This ruling does not even go into effect for 60 more days so doesn't that tell you something?
"Suddenly, all the sudden they are issuing these layoff notices as if the world is ending."
Roberts of the state Chamber said other mining operations are reviewing future viability due to the EPA's mine permit review process and other federal actions. He noted workers at Arch Coal's Mingo Logan Spruce No. 1 mine face uncertainty due to an EPA announcement in mid-October that it was initiating a process to veto the issuance of the mine's 404 water discharge permit.
"Unless something changes, I suspect that today's announcement by Consol will be what is in store for many counties and communities in the southern half of our state," Roberts said Tuesday. "Coal operators will not be able to employ miners, produce coal and generate tax revenues if mine permits are revoked or disallowed.
"West Virginia's rural counties and the families who live and work in these communities need our state's leaders in Washington to help now."
Gov. Joe Manchin said the news of Consol's impending layoffs comes at an awful time.
"In this economy and at this time of year, this is very tough news to hear and we are sorry to learn about these layoffs," Manchin spokesman Matt Turner said. "Gov. Manchin remains strongly committed to the mining of coal and to our coal miners and their families, who produce the energy this nation has depended on and continues to depend on."