Alpha Natural Resources passed out pink slips to coal miners at four West Virginia installations last Tuesday, including two in Fayette County, blaming the closures on the combined effects of an upsurge in natural gas, soft markets, a warm winter, and rigid enforcement of environmental rules.

President Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association termed the sudden announcement by the Virginia-based coal outfit as “a wakeup call” and accused the Environmental Protection Agency of ignoring recent court rulings that it exceeded its powers in a campaign to “bully” and “intimidate” operators.

“It’s all about the same thing we’ve been talking about, the same terrible uncertainty that’s been created by the EPA and the Obama administration with permitting,” Raney said, shortly after Alpha disclosed its company-wide closures.

Altogether, the firm idled eight mines — four in West Virginia, three in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania.

In West Virginia, the Bristol, Va.-based Alpha identified the closed installations as the Alloy deep mine near Powellton, and the Alloy surface mine near Boomer, both in Fayette County, along with two others in Mingo County, the Premium highwall mine at Gilbert, and the White Flame Surface mine near Wharncliffe.

Virginia mines shut down were Guest Mountain deep mines No. 8 and No. 9 near Norton, and the Twin Star Surface Mine near Hurley. In addition, Alpha said it closed its Dora deep mine in Jefferson County, Pa.

In two recent court edicts, judges held that the EPA had overstepped its boundaries in enforcement of regulations, but Raney said the Obama administration appears to let those decisions go unheeded.

“It seems to be from the standpoint of trying to bully the state and bully the companies,” the coal leader said.

Samantha Davison, representing Alpha’s communications department, pointed to a variety of reasons behind the mine closings.

“You never want to let anyone go,” she said.

“You never want to do layoffs. That’s absolutely the hardest part of all this. We realized we needed to focus our business on two areas — one being metallurgical coal to meet long-term global demand for steel and competitively priced coal for U.S. utilities and export markets.”

Davison cited several factors, such as the sharp and swift plunge in natural gas prices and conversion by erstwhile coal-fired power plants, the unusually mild winter, changes in met and thermal coal, and EPA rules.

“We don’t see natural gas competition going away any time soon and we don’t see regulatory pressure from the EPA doing anything but increasing,” she said.

Raney, likewise, sees no letup in what many in West Virginia have labeled a “war on coal” orchestrated by President Barack Obama and his EPA. In fact, the industry spokesman said he fears any more job losses.

“The EPA just needs to be more practical,” he said.

“They’ve accelerated everything to the point where it has intimidated those that want to expand a plant, or want to put new control technologies on. It has frustrated that whole arena.”

Raney voiced hope that the federal government will “begin to realize how important coal is to the electricity grid in this country, not only the security of it, but also the convenience.

“You keep hoping some of these things are going to change, that the court cases would change the behavior of the EPA, and it has not,” he said.

“It’s not changing the EPA’s behavior.”

Whether Alpha ultimately can restore production at its now-closed mines is hard to say, Davison said.

“For the foreseeable future, we know things are not changing for the thermal market and that’s where these mines sell to,” she said.

“There are no plans to reopen these idle mines but you can never say never.”

Already, the Obama administration has rubbed out 2,000 mining jobs in West Virginia alone, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said.

“Because of the president’s ‘war on coal,’ thousands of West Virginia families have to worry about where their next paycheck is going to come from,” she said.

“West Virginians love the Mountain State. We want to stay here and raise families, but the president’s extreme policies are crippling entire towns and making it harder for workers to find jobs.”

Capito pledged to use her office to help displaced workers.

The 2nd District representative acknowledged that multiple factors came into play in prompting Alpha to close the mines, “and there is no question the EPA’s extreme rules and regulations played a major role.”

A vote is set this week on HR3409, the so-called “Stop the War on Coal Act,” which includes Capito’s language that would force the EPA to consider the impact of its rules and regulations on jobs and the economy.

“Americans want a balanced, all-of-the-above energy policy that includes coal, natural gas, oil and renewables,” Capito said.

“Unfortunately, the administration and the EPA are only focused on short-term political goals, even if it means laying off thousands of workers when we’ve had 8 percent unemployment for 43 consecutive months. House Republicans will not stop pressuring the Senate and the president to stop this war on America’s natural resources.”

Likewise taking a shot at the administration, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Alpha has suffered ups and downs over the years in the market, “but they can’t be expected to fight their own government, too.

“The difference between those times and now is that companies didn’t have to deal with the overreaching of an EPA that makes it impossible to build any certainty into the future,” Manchin said.

“Especially at a time when our economy is so fragile and good-paying jobs are hard to come by, it’s clear that our federal government needs to start working with us and not against us. There’s a balance to be found between the environment and the economy and the EPA has worked very hard to avoid finding that balance.”

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