W.Va. lawmakers focus on coal downturn

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia officials estimated that joblessness among the state’s coal miners has eased as lawmakers sought favorable signs Monday for the state’s mining industry.

Around 4,740 miners have sought unemployment benefits since Jan. 1, said Russell Fry, acting executive director of WorkForce West Virginia. But about 2,220 of them did not file a claim for benefits within the last month, Fry told the House-Senate Joint Commission on Economic Development.

“These are individuals we would think may have returned to work,” said Fry, whose agency oversees the unemployment program.

Fry also noted that laid off miners may not file any claims, choosing instead to retire or seek work in another industry.

West Virginia is the nation’s second-biggest coal producer. While mining accounts for just 5 percent of the state’s employments, those jobs tend to pay wages more than one-third higher than the state average. But such factors as cheap natural gas have slowed production in recent months, triggering mine shutdowns and layoffs.

But state Division of Energy Director John Herholdt reminded the lawmakers that American Electric Power recently announced that it did not plan to switch to the cheaper fossil fuel.

“We think the worst is behind us as far as the challenge to electricity production,” Herholdt said.

Herholdt also told the joint panel that the latest estimate has 17 billion tons of recoverable coal in West Virginia.

“We have still adequate coal for a century plus with today’s mining techniques,” he said. “We continue to make the case to our president and Congress that coal is a viable energy resource, and we need to make sure that our nation takes advantage of this affordable, abundant resource.”

Other speakers addressed economic alternatives for the coalfields, if the downturn persists or worsens. One, Bob Brown, cited the ambitious Reconnecting McDowell initiative. The proposed five-year plan involving private companies, nonprofit groups, government agencies and others seeks to rescue that county’s ailing public schools by addressing such community ills as substandard housing, drug abuse and chronic unemployment.

McDowell was once the heart of the West Virginia coalfields, and nearly 100,000 people lived there in the 1950s when machines began replacing miners. Its population has since dwindled to 22,100. Brown said a major challenge to Reconnecting McDowell has been sufficient training and skills among its working-age adults. Finding people who can pass drugs tests has been another, Brown said.

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