Largest Virginia coal mine idled

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Print this page BY DEBRA McCOWN, Media General News Service

CLINTWOOD, Va. – Here in rural Southwest Virginia, an area dependent on the coal and natural gas industries, the global economy’s downward spiral is starting to hit home.

“I got laid off ... I ain’t never been laid off before,” said Chris Griffey, 30, of Elkhorn City, Ky. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Griffey was among several men eating lunch Thursday at the Hardee’s downtown. All said they’ve been laid off in recent months, some more than once as regional employers ease back on production.

Among the latest letting employees go is CONSOL energy in Buchanan County, which idled its Buchanan Mine – the largest coal mine in Virginia – for at least a month. The mine employs 540 people.

The reason for the stopped work: They aren’t getting orders for coal.

CONSOL spokesman Tom Hoffman said soaring coal prices as recently as last year were a result of global demand for coal.

“Then … the fall happened, that the economy just, it didn’t slow down; it literally fell off a cliff, not just in the U.S., but very quickly in many places around the world,” Hoffman said. “Suddenly, steel makers were saying, ‘We’re going to shut our factories down. We’re not going to make any steel for a while because we don’t have any orders. And so coal producers have to follow that lead pretty closely in order to make sure we’re not producing coal nobody wants.”

Hoffman said the coal industry as a whole is still better off than many other industries because of the continued demand for electricity. However, he said, with factories shutting down all over America, the demand for energy is decreasing as well.

He believes the situation will improve sometime this year or next – and ultimately developing countries will resume their growth.

“We’re trying to spread what work we have around to help everybody out,” Hoffman said. “We’re keeping people on benefits, and we hope that things will turn around sooner rather than later, but … that’s a crystal ball that’s not very clear.”

Back at the Hardee’s, the men eating lunch Thursday said the recent string of job losses means there are people in their communities who can’t afford clothes, food or medicine for their families.

“I’ve had like three different jobs in the last two months,” said Joseph Young, 28, of Grundy, Va. “Once coal or gas, either one goes down, they both go down.”

Even with six years experience working underground, Young said, he couldn’t get a coal company job. Now he’s working for a gas company – one of the few around that still has work.

“Around here you have to go 50, 60 or 100 miles from home just to find a job anymore,” said David Bennett, 20, of Elkhorn City, Ky.

Bennett said the United States needs to find a way to use the gas and coal produced here to power homes and vehicles instead of relying on foreign oil.

Others echoed the idea: Use more American-made energy so more Americans can work.

“Back in December I got laid off down at United Coal Co.,” said Greg Baker, 44, of Clintwood, who was at a shopping area down the street from the Hardy’s. “They shut our mine down; that was 30-some people lost their jobs. Now I have to drive an hour and 20-some minutes to Appalachia to work.”

Baker said the companies that aren’t shutting down indefinitely are cutting back on people and work schedules. He said the region has lost 10 percent of its jobs in the past few months.

“If it doesn’t pick back up, if the coal stays down, then people will have to leave,” Baker said. “It will be like back in the ’80s, when we really lost a lot of population.”

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