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Region still relies on coal for electricity, jobs

April 2, 2012
By Kevin Pierson - The Marietta Times ( , The Marietta Times

It was a man by the name of James Watt that turned coal into one of the hottest commodities known to man back in the late 1700s.

With one invention - the modern steam engine - coal became one of the foremost fuels in the United States.

When the coal-fired power plant came along to generate electricity, coal usage once again soared.

Coal has remained one of the key elements in the American economy. But unlike the 1800 and 1900s, when coal was the backbone of businesses like steel and power, the future of the coal industry is somewhat less clear.

Even today, coal-burning power plants create almost half of the electricity in the United States.

But producing that coal is becoming more and more difficult as additional regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency are levied against coal companies.

Fact Box

Q&A: Longtime coal miner has fond memories of working in the mines

When he was a young child, Virgil Thompson, 69, of Summerfield Village, watched his father bring coal to school houses and homes.

As he got older, Thompson found himself looking for work, and his childhood memories came back as he began a career working in strip mines across Ohio.

After 25 years working for Central Ohio Coal, Baker-Noon Coal Company and Quinn Development Company, Thompson retired from his job, but continues to have fond memories of his time in the coal industry.

Q: What was it like working in a coal mine? What was a typical day in the life of a coal miner like for you?

A: I was always on a piece of equipment. I was either on a front end loader or a dozer. I ran dozer more than anything, but sometimes they'd put me on a front end loader or a scrapper, always removing overburden. Once in a while you'd have to reclaim, put the land back together.

I worked all three shifts in those years. I worked days and afternoons when I was in Belmont County. Then when I was in Noble and Muskingum I worked all three shifts. There wasn't a midnight shift when I was in Belmont County, but you worked long hours when there wasn't three shifts. A lot of days at Central Ohio you'd work 12 hours.

Q: What are some of the challenges for a coal miner?

A: It's the most abundant natural resource we have in our country. It's definitely the cheapest way of powering a power plant to make electricity. There are very strict safety regulations when you're a coal miner. You have to have training every year on your safety training. You're around awful big equipment and safety is very important. There are a lot of hazards, so you have to be careful.

A lot of people don't like working different shifts. A lot of people, they might be a little shy out there on these hills working around high walls.

When they see some of the high walls, and how far down in the ground people are working equipment getting this coal out of the ground, they might say, 'Boy, that doesn't look real safe.' That's why you're taught safety. You've got to always have safety in mind.

It's really a very good job. It might not be for everybody, but anybody that's (done) it, they like it. It's a very interesting job. You can always see everyday what you got done at the end of the day.

Q: What made you want to become a coal miner?

A: I like to run equipment. When I went to the coal mines I was out of a job and had bills to pay. I ran equipment a little. I was just very lucky I got into this. I really liked the job. I liked the paychecks and I liked running the big equipment.

Q: How did being a coal miner change your outlook?

A: The thing about coal that a lot of people don't understand is mining the coal makes so many spin-off jobs. The outfits, they've got to buy equipment, fuel, parts, powder. Then you've got truckers involved. They've got to have money to buy things. It keeps the income going for so many people, not just the people there. That's what really makes the coal mine job important.

Q: What do you think the role of coal is in today's world?

A: I feel that the coal industry is very important, but we have so many regulations in this country that it really makes it hard for a company trying to stay in business. They hold them up on getting mining permits. Then you always have the environmental rules that make it so tough. They really have to keep up on their toes with all the restrictions involving coal mining to keep operating. They try to keep the costs down all they can, because coal is still the cheapest way of running a power plant to make electric.

It definitely does have an important role. We've probably got 200 years of coal in our country yet. We've got plenty of it. People are always going to need electric. People are wanting to keep their electric bill down. As long as you're using these coal fired plants you're going to keep the electric bills down.

Kevin Pierson conducted this interview.

About Virgil Thompson

Age: 69.

Residence: Summerfield Village in Noble County.

Family: Wife Jane, five children.

Education: 1960 graduate of Summerfield High School.

Work experience: Retired after 25 years of working in coal mines in Belmont, Noble and Muskingum counties.

Coal usage in the United States

93 percent of coal used in the United States is used for generating electricity.

Coal is used to generate almost half of all electricity in the United States.

About 70 percent of coal mined in the United States is produced from surface, or strip mines.

Coal is mined in 26 states, with Wyoming mining the most. West Virginia is second, followed by Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Montana.

Source: United States Department of Energy

"What (the EPA) is doing is regulating us out of existence by causing delays and restrictions on different mining," said Roger Osborne, vice president and chief engineer for B&N Coal, based in Dexter City.

Regulations from the EPA have taken a particular toll on small companies. The permitting process on mines once took six months.

Now, due to additional studies that must be completed to assure no damage is done to wildlife like salamanders in streams down from the mine it can take several years, Osborne said.

Linda Oros, with the Ohio EPA public interest office, said the state is trying to work with coal companies to lower the amount of time required for a permit.

"We have been working really hard to shorten our permit process," Oros said.

The EPA has said in an article in U.S. News & World Report the rules to cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions at coal-fired power plants would yield up to $290 billion in annual health and welfare benefits in 2014. The proposed regulations will also prevent up to 36,000 premature deaths, 26,000 hospital and emergency room visits and 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma, the EPA said.

Of four mines owned by B&N two are on the verge of running out of land they are permitted to mine. It is unlikely that a new permit will be obtained before the mine area is no longer viable to produce coal.

Currently, about 70 people are employed by B&N in the coal mining industry. If new permits are not obtained, many of those employees are facing layoffs, Osborne said.

"We're celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, but our celebration may be we're out of business," Osborne joked.

While B&N is expected to remain in business, there are definitely challenges for the coal industry with the permit process.

Additional contracts for coal could be signed by the company, but demand could be higher than the supply given the permit process, Osborne said.

"There's still some demand for coal out there," Osborne said. "We could get more contracts, but we can't accept because you get tied to a contract you have to supply it. Well, if we can't get a permit we can't supply it."

Demand for coal remains in part because of its use in the generation of electricity.

Even though American Electric Power plans to phase out coal-fired plants, the bulk of its generation services remain based off coal. Included among the proposed shutdown is four units at the Muskingum River Plant, located near Beverly.

In 2011, 78 percent of the electricity produced by AEP was generated by coal, said Tammy Ridout, corporate media relations spokeswoman for AEP.

Current plans at AEP are to phase out the four units at the Muskingum River Plant within three years, but that is subject to EPA regulations.

"Right now, we estimate that it would be the middle of 2015, but the final retirement dates would be potentially subject to change based on the final implementation of the federal environmental rules," Ridout said.

The closure of that plant is predicted to have a heavy impact on Washington County.

While there are few coal mines in Washington County, the area has benefited from the coal industry.

The AEP plant is just one of the ways, and its closure will affect more than just the immediate area.

"The negative part of it is we're losing jobs," said Terry Tamburini, executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority. "Plants are being closed, and people are being forced to move, in our case, a lot of it out of Washington County to areas like Coshocton."

Closure of the coal-fired units at the AEP plant has a ripple effect on things such as the railroad, which could possibly have stopped at the former Union Carbide complex on Ohio 7.

Globe Metallurgical Inc. is adjacent to the AEP facility, and still requires rail service, Tamburini said.

"If Globe were hurting, we'd have a major problem in both Washington County and Wood County," Tamburini said.

Osborne noted that 87 percent of the electric in Ohio is produced by burning coal.

U.S. Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, noted the impact of coal on the state's Sixth District and the rising cost of energy.

"We're talking about thousands of jobs, and America is already paying $300 more per year for their electricity than when President (Barack) Obama came into office. Ohio gets 87 percent of its energy from coal. You combine $4 a gallon for gas with rising energy costs at home, it's not a good scenario," Johnson said.

Virgil Thompson, 69, of Summerfield Village in Noble County, worked in a surface coal mine for 25 years and said he remains faithful to the coal industry.

"Other alternative energies are OK, but the abundance of coal we have in this country, it's still the cheapest way (to make electricity). We're never going to deal without electric," Thompson said.



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