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Justice company announces 'massive call backs' of miners

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Justice family's Southern Coal Corp. said Tuesday it has secured orders that will allow it to save 500 Appalachian mining jobs and hire workers for 650 new positions.

Roanoke, Va.-based Southern Coal announced what it called "massive call backs and hiring" of miners in Southern West Virginia, Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. In a press release, the company said it had entered into a multi-year agreement with American Electric Power that allows the actions.

Southern Coal is part of the business empire of Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier resort, and is run in part by his son, Jay Justice.

The news release said Southern Coal would be hiring 650 new miners over the coming weeks, and that an additional 500 mining jobs would be saved.

"We are so happy to be able to save the jobs, and hire the 650 new miners, especially at this time of year," the Justices said in the release. "We hope this will make the holidays a little better for those affected."

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called the announcement "wonderful news to the entire Mountain State."

"America is the greatest nation the world has ever known, and that nation runs on coal," Tomblin said in a statement included in Southern Coal's press release.

The press release did not name specific mines or the numbers of workers at individual operations.

Mark Liebermann, a spokesman for Southern Coal, said the mines involved include those operated under the name Kentucky Fuel Corp. in Logan County, W.Va., and Pike and Knott counties in Kentucky. Also involved are the A&G Coal and Virginia Fuel operations in Dickenson and Lee counties in Virginia, and the Sequoia Energy operation near Harlan, Ky.

Last year, Southern Coal operations controlled by the Justice family produced about 4.6 million tons of coal and employed 1,500 workers in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, according to company data reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Production was about equally split between surface and underground operations, according to the data.

As of the third quarter of 2012, Southern Coal listed 750 fewer miners, reflecting layoffs and mine closures at more than two dozen small operations, according to the MSHA data.

Southern Coal's Tuesday announcement comes three weeks after President Obama's re-election victory, despite the coal industry's public relations campaign alleging the administration had carried out a "war on coal" aimed at destroying the industry.

While coal company officials and regional political leaders blamed coal's problems on the Obama administration, the number of miners working in Appalachian actually rose during the first three years of Obama's term.

But the industry has struggled, and a series of layoffs since the first of this year has hit Appalachian coal communities hard. Industry experts and analysts have pointed to factors other than new regulations as playing much larger roles in the decline of Appalachian coal: cheap natural gas, competition from other coal basins and the mining-out of the best and easiest-to-reach reserves.

Government and private forecasts have for years projected a decline in Southern West Virginia production, fueled by quality reserves being mined out and increasing competition from giant surface mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

More recently, advances in natural gas drilling resulted in extremely cheap prices, prompting many power producers to switch fuels. Additionally, new EPA efforts to reduce toxic air emissions have forced some utilities to speed up plans to close older, inefficient coal plants that couldn't meet the EPA standards.

The latest data from the federal Energy Information Administration show that utility demand for U.S. steam coal has dropped 17 percent this year, in large part because of competition from natural gas. EIA is projecting the lowest coal consumption by the U.S. electricity sector in at least 20 years.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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