Friday, May 11, 2001

Energy policy raising coal revival hopes

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — In the heart of Appalachia, optimism is running high that the boom-or-bust coal industry could be about to experience another boom.

        The Bush administration is placing increased emphasis on coal to meet the nation's growing electricity demands, and that could restart a coal industry that has been in a bust cycle for nearly 20 years.

        At least that's the hope among industry representatives in Kentucky's Appalachian region, where the search has already begun to find workers to fill new jobs.

[photo] Rick Johnson of Premier Elkhorn Coal in Pike County expects to ship some 5 million tons of coal by year's end.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “Supply and demand are the ruling factors in the coal industry,” said Rick Johnson, operations manager for Premier Elkhorn Coal in Pike County.

        “Now we're getting the demand back, and that's very good news.”

        The biggest threat now is a shortage of certified miners. That shortage could cause coal companies in eastern Kentucky to miss the opportunity a rejuvenated market would provide.

        The coal industry is asking the Kentucky Community and Technical College System to help train new miners to fill some 1,000 slots open in both underground and surface mining operations.

        “Nobody can find experienced miners right now,” said Paul Matney, personnel director for TECO Coal of Corbin. “The industry would love to pick up production right now, because you can sell everything you produce, but we can't because we don't have the manpower.”

        Michael B. McCall, president of the community and technical college system, said he wants to help the coal industry train miners.

        “We have already been in contact with a number of coal companies on how we can assist them,” Mr. McCall said.

        In the rural community of Myra, a continuous string of trucks shuttles heaping loads of coal from Premier Elkhorn mines to a loading area for the trek to power plants across the country. By year's end, Mr. Johnson expects to ship some 5 million tons from the Pike County mountainside.

        Mr. Johnson thinks the tonnage could increase substantially under the Bush administration's energy policy, which Vice President Dick Cheney has said will call for greater use of coal to help meet the nation's growing demand for electricity. More miners will be crucial.

        Mr. Cheney said the nation needs between 1,300 and 1,900 new power plants over the next 20 years to meet projected increase in demand. Coal, he said, remains the most available and most affordable fuel for generating plants.

        “People are so happy that we have a president who realizes the importance of coal,” said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “That's the optimism you're seeing. Coal is not a dirty word any more.”

        Coal has traditionally been the chief industry in Kentucky's mountain region. In 1980, the state had 46,395 people working in the mining industry. In 1999, that number dropped below 16,000. Because of the lack of job opportunities, fewer people have been looking to the coal industry.

        Mr. Matney said that has left the industry overall searching for miners to fill job openings.

        “It's going to take awhile to assimilate new coal miners into the industry,” Mr. Matney said. “That's why we're trying to get the state to help with training.”

        New employees must have six days of training to enter a mine, then work within sight and sound of a certified miner for 45 days to become certified. Only then are they permitted to operate equipment by themselves.

        “If the Kentucky Community and Technical College System provided that training, we'd get individuals whose skills would be much higher,” Mr. Matney said. “The quality of training would be better than just putting an untrained individual into the mines and handing them a shovel.”

        The Kentucky Mining Board, which has to approve the coal industry's training proposal, is considering the matter.

        Mr. Caylor said the state training could lessen the number of on-the-job-training days needed, possibly by as much as 15 to 20 days. Before the mining industry went bust in the early 1980s, colleges across eastern Kentucky offered coal technology courses.

        Mr. Matney said it's important to get such programs going again.

        “We're going to have somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 new miners coming into the industry over the next few years,” he said.

        “The question is: How do we want to train them?”


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