There are new signs of life in Ohio’s coal fields.
Coal mining was once king in the state’s Appalachian foothills. But the industry went into a nosedive in the 1980s because of falling foreign demand and increased production of cheaper coal from Western states. Mines closed, and a generation of potential miners left their tiny towns to make their livings elsewhere, dealing a hard blow to a region already lagging behind the state economically.
With the skyrocketing cost of oil and new pollution controls, coal is on the rebound. Mines are being reopened, and new miners are being hired.
“The market’s very strong,” said Bruce Hann, general manager of Central Appalachian Mining of Ohio, which in 2004 reopened the Hopedale Mine near this eastern Ohio town of about 3,300. “It was just an economic decision. It made sense.”
Demand for U.S. coal is expected to be a record 1.2 billion tons this year, up from 1.18 billion in 2005, according to the National Mining Association. Production is forecast to be 1.16 billion tons, a 3.2 percent increase over 2005.
Sixty-nine mines opened in Appalachia last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The nation’s mining work force dropped from nearly 178,000 in 1984 to 75,000 in 2005. Now, miners are in such need in Kentucky that coal companies are running ads and conducting job fairs. Companies in West Virginia are offering pay increases, improved benefits and bonuses to attract new miners and to keep existing workers from being raided by competitors.
Many credit coal’s revival to it being seen as an alternative to increasingly expensive oil and natural gas. Others point to the binge in construction of — or plans for — new coal-fired power plants to satisfy the nation’s surging demand for electricity.
High-sulfur coal tied to air-polluting sulfur dioxide was once shunned because it was too expensive and dirty to burn, blamed for acid rain and watershed damage. But more power plants are using advanced pollution-controlling “scrubbers” and are better equipped to handle such fuel.
There are about 100 mines and 35 coal companies in Ohio. An estimated 24.6 million tons of coal were mined last year by the state’s 2,500 mine workers. That’s up from 23.5 million tons in 2004 and 22.3 million tons in 2003, when there were 2,300 workers.
Central Appalachian Mining has hired 25 new miners at Hopedale in the past year, increasing its work force to 190. The company has invested $14 million for new equipment and expects to work the mine for more than 15 years before the coal runs out.
The workers dig coal in tiny tunnels, most only 5 feet high, more than 500 feet underground. The mine operates seven days a week in two 10-hour shifts.
In the mine, a four-wheeled, 60-ton behemoth called a Continuous Mining Machine — or “the miner” — chews into the coal with big steel teeth that rotate on a drum. The machine tears coal from the wall and quickly fills itself up like a bowl of cereal. Shuttle cars carry the coal to the conveyor belt, nearly spanning the 17-foot width of the tunnel.
The 190 workers are putting out 1,100 tons of coal per shift. That will translate into 1.8 million tons of coal this year, up from 1.4 million in 2005.
Safety measures are taken to prevent cave-ins and injuries from the heavy equipment, but the work is dirty and grueling. Headlamps stab tiny lights through inky blackness, with heavy machinery roaring and coal dust flying.
Jim Allender, a crew leader at the mine, remembers when the coal industry began cutting back.
“You couldn’t buy a job in a mine then,” said Allender, 47, of Bergholz. “I tried trucking. That didn’t work out too good. Coal mining definitely helps the economics in this area.”
But the coal comeback raises concerns for those who point out that the region’s environment still bears the scars of mining, with polluted waterways, strip-mined hills and damaged watersheds — land that drains water into rivers and streams.
“We’re looking for the day when both the extraction and burning of coal can be done a lot better and less harmfully than it is today,” said Keith Dimoff, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “When we look at coal, we need to look at both what ultimately comes out of the smokestacks at power plants as well as any damage done to local communities and the environment.”
The Monday Creek Restoration Project, based in New Straitsville, cleans up abandoned coal sites with the help of federal money. Its watershed coordinator, Mike Steinmaus, said Ohio streams were polluted by abandoned coal mines when there were few environmental regulations. Acidic water from abandoned mines and piles of coal waste left streams uninhabitable for fish and other aquatic life.
He said stronger environmental regulation is in effect now, and he agreed that coal offers new hope to communities such as New Straitsville, down to 570 residents compared with 3,000 during the coal boom.
“Without the mines being here, the communities have essentially withered away,” Steinmaus said. “It’s certainly a social and economic problem.”
Mine jobs pay about $21 a hour, more than most in this area.
“When I was young, there were two options — steel mills or coal mines,” said Jeff Sabo, 55, a third-generation miner employed as safety supervisor at Hopedale Mine.
Sabo, a notebook and a package of peanut butter crackers sticking out from the front pockets of his overalls, recounted that he went to work in the mines after leaving the military in 1971 and enrolled at Ohio University at the same time. A philosophy major, Sabo hoped to teach, but he decided to drop out and work the mines full time.
He says he has no regrets. His earnings have helped put his two children through college. One is an architect, and the other a speech therapist.
“This is definitely one of the premier jobs in Harrison County,” he said. “It’s enabled me to have a good life.”